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Kovacevic: Patience in order for Marte, fans

| Monday, June 4, 2012, 12:37 a.m.
Starling Marte is the five-tool star of the Pirates’ Triple-A Indianapolis affiliate and the system’s best position-player prospect. Submitted
Starling Marte is the five-tool star of the Pirates’ Triple-A Indianapolis affiliate and the system’s best position-player prospect. Submitted
Christopher Horner
Pirates outfielder Starling Marte signs autographs before a spring training game in Dunedin, Florida. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

INDIANAPOLIS — Starling Marte is all that. Really is. And it doesn't take more than one sunny Sunday afternoon at Victory Field to see it.

He's the five-tool star of the Pirates' Triple-A Indianapolis affiliate, the system's best position-player prospect, and every tool in the kit took to the stage on this day. He glided gracefully into an outfield gap to turn a highlight catch into a ho-hummer. He fired a one-hop strike from center field to home plate. He fisted a double the other way. He pulled another ball 390 feet to the track. He lashed an RBI single after digging an 0-2 hole.

Trust me on this: You'll love this player when he gets to Pittsburgh.

That should be soon, too. After a sluggish start, Marte is batting .270 while leading Indianapolis in runs (29), triples (six), total bases (88) and steals (14). His .340 tear over the past 11 games includes three home runs, one a grand slam and the other … well, I'll let manager Dean Treanor describe it: “Thought it would put a hole through the Marriott.”

That's the 33-story hotel beyond left field. And that's the only aspect of the Marte tale that's tall.

“The way Starling's swinging right now, what he's doing … I don't want to say it's exceptional. I don't like to do that,” Treanor said. “But that's what it's been. Exceptional. This guy's a thoroughbred.”

That's how he looks, too.

When I first met Marte in the Dominican Republic four years ago, I recall telling one of the Pirates' scouts that his athletic build reminded of Darryl Strawberry. The scout came back, “That's what a ballplayer's supposed to look like.” Now, at age 23, Marte is 6-foot-2, a ripped but lithe 180 pounds, and he's blessed with Omar Moreno's legs and Jose Guillen's arm.

Ballplayer, indeed.

If you're counting the tools to five, that's batting for average, power, speed, glove and arm.

Add a dash of confidence, too: When I asked Marte if he was happy with how he's fared here, he paused, looked around a bit and replied, “Happy?”

That's when he smiled, and I figured out the real question he wanted to hear: Will he be happy once he gets to Pittsburgh?

“Yes!” the kid beamed.

It's all enough to make you wonder what the Pirates are waiting for.

I ran that by general manager Neal Huntington, and he reiterated that Marte's priority is plate discipline: “We need to help him lock in to a point we feel he's ready to challenge major league pitching. When we believe Starling is in a position to apply his tools consistently enough to help us win, he'll be ready for a call-up.”

In other words, Marte needs to be patient — at the plate and otherwise — and so does everyone else.

I applauded Huntington when he sent Marte to Indianapolis in spring training, even though Marte was a 13-for-25 terror in Florida. Fact is, as recently as last summer with Class AA Altoona, Marte was flailing at pretty much any pitch confined to Blair County. Moreover, he'd never played above that level.

I'm still with Huntington.

Yes, Marte's eye is improving. He's drawn 11 walks, compared to 22 all of last season. More important, he's being more selective when seeking pitches to drive. That's his forte.

“I feel really good about my strike zone now,” Marte said. “It was much bigger in Altoona.”

“He's so much smarter up there,” Treanor said. “Starling comes up to me now in the dugout after an at-bat, goes over everything he saw, what the pitcher was doing, and he tells me what he'll do the next at-bat. He adjusts. He's learning.”

Marte's first at-bat yesterday brought a fine example.

Syracuse righty Mitch Atkins came at Marte with nothing but breaking stuff, as most pitchers do. But Marte stood firm. He barely flinched at two close balls — curve inside, slider outside — to even the count at 2-2. Another slider came next, but he liked this one, went right where it was pitched and drove it inside the right-field chalk for a double.

“One slider? Maybe,” Marte said. “But two sliders? No, no.”

He wagged his finger.

Good stuff.

In a later at-bat, though, with a runner on third and nobody out, he recklessly struck out on three pitches, the third a curve at his ankles. Whiffed next time up, too, also on three pitches.

Takes time, right?

If it takes another month or so, it can't hurt.

This player is special. When he arrives, it should be with the expectation to excel, not just to patch a hole in a lousy lineup.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at dkovacevic@tribweb.com.

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