The Pittsburgh Pirates could very well trade Starling Marte this off-season as they decide what direction to head with a new management team at the helm. If he has played his last game in the black and gold, l for one will count him among the best to ever lace up the spikes in Pittsburgh.
How’s this sound for a seven-year career? A 29.1 WAR, in 3,647 at bats he has logged 1,047 hits, 108 home runs while maintaining a batting average of .287. Starling has scored 555 runs while driving in 420. He also racked up 239 stolen bases, much of the time being the only real threat to do so on his club.
Pretty damn impressive, right? For seven full seasons and a cup of coffee in an eighth, Starling Marte has either been THE best Pirate or in the shadow of Andrew McCutchen. All those numbers I just listed didn’t even touch the defense. Pride and loyalty to Andrew kept Marte in left field for most of his career, but everyone knew he was superior in center in every measurable way. His arm is elite, his speed erases the gaping acreage in PNC Park’s outfield, and his closing speed steals hits with the best of them.
Marte is no stranger to criticism amongst the fanbase though, and quite frankly he’s earned much of it. Let’s begin with the obvious, failing a drug test for PEDs and missing the majority of a season. There’s just no way to look past that when telling the story of Starling’s career. He’s also been guilty of seeming lapses in attention in the field and hustle on the base paths, which frustrates any fan old enough to remember highlights of throwbacks such as Pete Rose.
All told, Marte has had a whole lot on his shoulders since he was 24 years old and, at 31, he is still right in the heart of his prime. The Pirates still hold one option on their star center fielder that could keep him a Pirate through the 2021 campaign. Earlier this month they exercised the first of those options to keep him under team control, at least for now.
So why would the Pirates trade Marte now if he’s been so vital to the club? Well, you see that paragraph right up there? Those two years of control make him extremely attractive to other clubs. I mean, the numbers don’t hurt either, but knowing you’ve solved your problems at a crucial position like center can make even the most conservative GM drool with excitement like a 5-year-old on Christmas morning.
Even if the Pirates think they’re close, even if Bob Nutting called Ben Cherington up and said, “Hey Ben, I was listening to Bucs in the Basement and I really think you should increase payroll by 40 million for 2020” chances are, Marte is still on the move. The offers could really blow the new GM away and Bob Nutting himself is on the record with Bob Pompeani at KDKA having said nobody is untouchable.
I’m not going to argue whether Starling should or shouldn’t be moved because I can see both sides of the conversation, but I will argue, they better get what he's worth. Because that same beautiful two years of control that makes him so irresistible to a team that thinks they’re close, also gives the Pirates the ultimate power chip. They don’t HAVE to move him. This is a name your price type move and if the front office is smart, they’ll learn a big lesson from the last regime that moved Gerrit Cole for two Quad A players who have some upside but profile as mid-level talents and a AAA outfielder who will struggle to make the squad in 2020.
Here’s what led to that trade, they thought there was no way to sign him again (rightly) and didn’t want to admit it was time to rebuild. So they tried to reach for players who had a chance to help immediately. They have helped, but there was no way to move a player like that and pretend they didn’t miss a beat. Marte is the same in many ways. Moving a player like him can’t be done in isolation. Moving on from Marte and pretending it isn’t at least a major retool is simply lying to yourself and the fans.
Sure, Bryan Reynolds will help ease the pain, but there is as always, a trickle-down and it starts with an immediate hit to an already terrible defense. Sure, Polanco could come back healthy and patrol right field again. Then what? At this point the Pirates would be left with one more gaping hole in the outfield, starting pitching, and catcher. Far more than they can expect to get in return and admirably fill in for what they just moved. Not in 2020. This puts other players in conversation for being moved, Bell, Polanco after proving himself, Archer, Moran, because moving Marte means the club is not improving in the next season.
They could try to extend Marte, but he has only made roughly 31 million in his career and is going to want, and quite frankly deserve, to get paid. Another possibility is to hold onto Marte barring a perfect deal until the deadline, where teams sometimes open the list of available prospects further than in the winter.
Whatever direction the Pirates choose, it’s imperative it is honest to the cause. Admit that moving Marte is a signal that you don’t believe in what you have, and do everything you need to get to a point where you do. Start the road trip with a full tank of gas instead of planning to stop at the first place on the Turn Pike.
Move Marte by all means, but make sure you get the pitching this team needs, not someone that has underperformed and needs a "fresh start." Go after a team's top pitching prospect and remind the suitor that the Pirates are under no pressure to move him at this time.
I wouldn’t have trusted Neal Huntington to make this move. He showed no ability to understand the value of what he was moving. Yes, I’m aware he fleeced the Giants for Reynolds and Crick, but I read the reports from the scouts, Reynolds has already outperformed what they thought him capable of. Ben Cherington faces his first set of signature moves as the new GM and they very well could make or break the story of his tenure. Win, Lose or draw we will always look back on these moves as defining moments.
He’d do well to remember he isn’t just moving an asset, he’s moving an all-time great and that comes with consequence and should have equal meaning. Make it count.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007