In his first full major league season, Starling Marte helped the Pirates reach the playoffs for the first time in 21 years and showed himself to be a star in the making. The team considers the 25-year-old leftfielder a cornerstone of their future, a point underscored by the six-year, $31 million extension they've hammered out with him.
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2007, Marte established a knack for hitting for high averages while showing off outstanding speed at virtually every stop in the Pirates' minor league system. However, injuries — most notably a 2010 broken hamate in his left wrist — prevented him from playing in more than 68 games in a season until 2011, when he hit .332/.370/.500 with 12 homers and 24 steals at Double-A Altoona. Via that performance, he landed on all of the major prospect lists in the spring of 2012, and held his own upon being called up to the majors in late July of that year to help what turned out to be unsuccessful runs at a winning record and a playoff spot.
In 2013, Marte helped the Pirates fulfill both of those goals for the first time since 1992 and took significant steps forward at the plate and in the field. He batted .280/.343/.441 with 12 homers, 10 triples and 41 steals; the latter two marks ranked second and third in the league, respectively. A natural centerfielder bumped to leftfield by the presence of Andrew McCutchen, he added 22 Defensive Runs Saved to his ledger as well en route to a 5.4 Wins Above Replacement showing.
2014 Season Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates
For all of that, Marte's game remains unrefined. His league-high 15 times caught stealing negated much of the value of his baserunning. He struck out 138 times and drew just 23 unintentional walks (4.0 percent of his plate appearances), one fewer than the number of times he was hit by pitch; those 24 plunkings ranked second in the NL and propped up his on-base percentage considerably. His offense was additionally driven by a .363 batting average on balls in play, which ranked fifth in the league and testified to his speed; 31 of his 143 hits were infield hits, the NL's third-highest total behind Jean Segura and Norichika Aoki (49 and 43, respectively). Sustaining his BABIP will be a challenge, though it's worth noting that his minor league BABIP was .367, and his lowest mark at any minor league stop above rookie ball was .344 at Triple-A Indianapolis in 2012.
Even with his rough edges, Marte should be able to justify his contract several times over during the life of his deal, which includes his 2014 salary (originally $512,400) and runs though what would have been his first year of free agency. The contract also includes two club options, meaning that he's now under club control through his age-32 season. While $31 million is no small amount of money, it's a bargain when compared to McCutchen's six-year, $51.5 million deal covering 2012-17, and Matt Carpenter's six-year, $52 million deal covering 2014-19. Service time has much do to with those discrepancies; McCutchen and Carpenter both had two years and change under their belts — not to mention their first All-Star appearances — and were thus headed into their final seasons before being eligible for arbitration. Marte has one year and 70 days to his credit, so he was two years away from eligibility.
With Marte and McCutchen — who has a club option for 2018 himself — locked up for at least the next half-decade, the Pirates already have one of the most dynamic outfields in baseball. They've got another centerfield-capable flychaser on the way in 22-year-old Gregory Polanco, who placed in the top-25 on the prospect lists of Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America after hitting a combined .285/.356/.434 at High-A, Double-A and Triple-A (just two games at the latter) in 2013. He's slated to start the year at Indianapolis, but given the team's lack of an offseason upgrade on the Jose Tabata/Travis Snider combo in rightfield, many feel as though he'll be in Pittsburgh by midseason. When he is, the team could have the best defensive outfield in baseball, something that will benefit Bucs pitchers and make the team all that more compelling as they try to demonstrate that last year's Wild Card appearance was no fluke.