Marte turning heads, but Bucs not rushing it
Despite prolific spring, prospect to begin season in Minors
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Let's get a few things straight, right off the bat.He is not Andy Marte, the infielder who broke into the Braves' lineup as a 21-year-old blue chipper. Nor is he Damaso Marte, the hard-throwing left-hander who had a productive decade, his brightest time actually coming with the Pirates, just to add to the confusion. Today's Marte is Starling. He also is sterling, perhaps an unavoidable nickname and adjective based on first impressions that are becoming lasting in Pirates' camp. The minute he walked into the Pirate City clubhouse, Marte attracted eyes. At 23, he had grown and filled out dramatically, not just from the 19-year-old kid whom the Bucs had signed out of the Dominican Republic, but even since a year ago.
Marte's road into his first Major League camp was paved by a long list of accomplishments, the latest milestones on a consistently spiking professional graph. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle digested the Eastern League batting championship and Rookie of the Year Award, the 18 outfield assists and 24 stolen bases, and the .328 Winter League average in the tough crowd of the Dominican, and came to a conclusion."He's at the top of my list of people I'm looking forward to watching play," Hurdle said as Spring Training approached. Anticipation quickly turned into enthusiasm. But, in all likelihood, that will just as quickly turn into separation. Marte could be one of the earliest camp cuts, to allow him to continue working out of the fishbowl toward his 2012 Triple-A destiny, and to chill out Pittsburgh fans. Marte captured attention, and the fans' immediate fancy, about the only way possible for a young, largely mysterious outfielder. He left the Grapefruit League not only in heat -- he is batting .563, even after striking out in both of his at-bats Monday -- but in concentrated heat, as eight of his nine hits came consecutively. Right now, the only thing Marte seems incapable of is changing the Pirates' plans to have him begin the season in the Minors. "He is not a candidate for the 25-man roster," Hurdle said definitively following Monday's game. The Pirates have an ideal outfield foursome: Alex Presley, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata in the lineup, and Nate McLouth in reserve to play aplenty at all three spots. Marte has one season of experience above Class A. And even though that one was sensational with Double-A Altoona last season, "we're not fans of jumping guys from Double-A to the big leagues," general manager Neal Huntington said. However, it has not been uncommon for players to successfully make that jump recently. Paul Goldschmidt did it last summer, becoming a key contributor to Arizona's National League West title. Two shortstop aces, the Cubs' Starlin Castro and Rangers' Elvis Andrus, both made the leap. So did catchers Joe Mauer (Twins) and Brian McCann (Braves), outfielder Nick Markakis (Orioles) and a trio of projected 2012 Astros: second baseman Jose Altuve, third baseman Jimmy Paredes and left fielder J.D. Martinez. No matter. The Pirates want to give Marte the best chance of continuing his impressive development without possible confidence-jarring setbacks. At the very least, he is leaving a compelling calling card. "He's shown his talent. Spring Training is a bad time for evaluations," said Huntington, echoing one of Hurdle's caveats. "But he's been getting hits off some pretty high-ranked pitchers. It's been fun to watch him play. He's been hitting the breaking ball and destroying the fastball." Monday's strikeouts against David Herndon and Michael Schwimer of the Phillies illustrated the need to further groom Marte, Hurdle implied. "Word gets around, and now he's being attacked differently," Hurdle said. "His next challenge will be to counter-punch. The experience of being here will pay big dividends going forward." The manager meant dividends for Marte's progression. However, Hurdle himself is profiting. While there is an Indianapolis uniform with his name on it waiting for Marte, combine one torrid month in Triple-A with a tired bat or bumps-and-bruises in Pittsburgh ... and there's no telling how quickly Marte could take the next step. The Royals' Eric Hosmer is an example of a young player who started a season with his Triple-A debut and was in the Majors a month later. "For us, to get the experience of working with him, being around him, talking with him ... it's been great," Hurdle said. "To see him manage at-bats the way he has. I see what everybody's been talking about in our player-development system. And we got a lot of raves out of winter ball from people in other organizations who've watched him play." That winter ball experience was a significant building block for Marte. He mixed with teammates and foes who were not only tough, but insightful. "Being around many Major League players during winter ball helped," he said. "I tried to take advantage of what they told me. I definitely wanted to take away as much information as I could from each of those guys. "That's one reason I haven't been nervous. I also got to go to a few games last spring as an extra player, and that was good experience." "He's working in the right direction. He has every opportunity to be a very exciting ballplayer," Hurdle said. "He's not caught up in big swings. He stays on the ball and can drive it for home runs. He's taking what pitchers give him. He hasn't been getting outside of himself. I haven't seen too many reckless swings." As an organization, the Pirates must feel that is a good example to follow. They aren't about to do anything reckless with Marte's future. But he appears to be on a slow train to Greatness, and it is approaching the station.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.