Outfielder Marte is front and center in Pirates' plans for future

Rob Biertempfel
| Friday, March 9, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. — It won't be long before Starling Marte is ready to play every day in the Pirates' outfield, but it won't happen by the start of this season.

Marte has gotten off to a torrid start in spring training, going 9 for 13 (.692) with three RBI in six games. On Thursday, he hit a solo homer in a 5-4, 10-inning loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Marte flied out to right field in the 10th, snapping a string of eight consecutive hits. The streak included a towering home run into the wind Wednesday at McKechnie Field.

"I was aware (of the streak), but I wasn't thinking about it," Marte said through an interpreter. "I just tried to connect and put the ball in play."

Marte, 23, will begin this season with Triple-A Indianapolis. The Pirates are set in the outfield with Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley and reserve Nate McLouth.

"We're not fans of jumping guys from Double-A to the big leagues," general manager Neal Huntington said. "There's a reason baseball goes level to level. Players learn different things at different levels."

Said Marte: "I'll play hard wherever they send me."

Marte has hit well at every level since the Pirates signed him for $85,000 in 2007 out of the Dominican Republic. Last season, he led the Double-A Eastern League with a .332 batting average and made big strides laying off pitches outside the strike zone.

"He can hit just about anybody's fastball," Huntington said. "His command of the zone is getting better. It's going to be crucial for him."

Marte is among the fastest players in the minors and has been a plus defender in center field. This spring, however, he's playing mostly in right and has looked uncomfortable. During a night game this week, Marte flubbed one catch and turned two other routine fly balls into adventures.

"That's not the guy we've come to expect and come to know," Huntington said. "Some of it might be the lack of familiarity with right field compared to his natural center field position."

Marte always has played center field; the position is a perfect match for his skills and instincts. But the Pirates already have an All-Star center fielder in McCutchen, who this week signed a contract that will keep him under team control through at least 2017.

"As we move forward, Andrew becomes the key guy in center field," Huntington said.

Left field at PNC Park is so roomy that it takes someone with a center fielder's skills to patrol it well. That's why the Pirates' top four outfielders were groomed in center.

At Indy this season, Marte will play alongside Gorkys Hernandez, another natural center fielder. The Pirates plan to give Marte and Hernandez alternating starts in left and center.

"We've very quickly accumulated some outfield depth," Huntington said. "That's a great place to be. We'll have some competition, and the next three, five, seven years will be very interesting in the outfield in Pittsburgh."

Six candidates

The Pirates' top six outfielders came through the minor leagues as center fielders:

Andrew McCutchen: Ranked best CF in majors by MLB.com

Alex Presley: One error in first 65 games in majors

Jose Tabata: Looking for full, healthy season

Nate McLouth: Made 506 of 569 career starts in CF

Starling Marte: Nice combination of speed, power and defense

Gorkys Hernandez: Needs to hit better for promotion

Photo Galleries

2012 Pirates Spring Training

2012 Pirates Spring Training

Photos from Pirates spring training in Bradenton, Florida.

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