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Kovacevic: Marte slump carries larger lesson

| Sunday, June 8, 2014, 10:27 p.m.

Let's get this out of the way: There remains no real target for the Pirates' promotion of Gregory Polanco. It won't be Monday against the Cubs. Could be later this week, I'm told.

And yes, it's still about the money.

And yes, for the billionth time, I happen to agree with keeping Polanco down for financial reasons, just as I did for Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole. Nothing's changed. This isn't about Josh Harrison. It isn't about additional seasoning for Polanco, who's making a mockery of Triple-A. Rather, it's about not being stupid and spending $15 million-plus for a few extra days of a 22-year-old rookie.

The front office has not, contrary to speculation, been given any date for when Polanco will no longer be eligible for Super-2 arbitration — the ridiculous rule at the root of this — but their own info suggests it hasn't passed yet.

Hence, it's status quo.

So, can we talk about something else, albeit on a semi-similar subject?

The more pressing concern, as I see it, is that Polanco's arrival could coincide with Starling Marte heading the other way through a revolving door.

In case it's slipped notice amid the Polanco fuss and Cole's shoulder flare and, oh, yeah, dropping two of three to Milwaukee, that other Dominican outfield prodigy has been an absolute mess for nearly a month now: Marte's 0 for 3 Sunday extended his career-worst slump to 0 for 23, his average has nosedived to .230 and, ugliest of all, he's occasionally carried it into the field and on the basepaths.

It's enough to make one wonder if something isn't seriously wrong.

“No, nothing at all,” Marte assured me after the 1-0 loss to the Brewers at PNC Park. “For sure, I'm fine.”

What about the confidence?

“I'm good. All good.”

Come on.

“I'm OK. I am. I had this happen to me one time in Indianapolis. I just kept working hard. Everything was OK.”

No one in the Pirates organization knows Marte as well as Rene Gayo, the Latin American scouting director who signed him as a skin-and-bones teen in Santo Domingo. Gayo loves the kid. Treats him like a son. But both told me over the weekend they've had some intense talks of late about Marte's showing since signing that six-year, $31 million contract this spring.

I won't share specifics, per the request of both men, but suffice it to say the bulk of what was discussed would have been unprintable, anyway.

“One thing you know about Rene,” Marte said, mustering a small smile. “He really tells you what he thinks.”

Gayo is hardly alone in being disappointed. Hopes were high entering this year for a full-scale Marte breakout. He was supposed to be the leadoff catalyst, and now he's batting seventh. He was supposed to be the five-tool bookend for Polanco around McCutchen, and he's being benched. The frustration, the exasperation is widespread.

But don't mistake that to mean the Pirates aren't behind Marte. That's not the sense I get at all.

Clint Hurdle held him out of the lineup for four games “because we've had him working on some things,” but he was back out there Sunday. And even with this latest 0 for 3, he screamed a liner toward the Clemente Wall that would have brought home two runs had it not zipped right into Ryan Braun's mitt. In the ninth, he walked and stole second to set the stage for a possible tying run. An inch here or there, and the slump is blown to bits.

In the broader scope, Marte's 0 for 23 has come with a superlative rate of 4.42 pitches per plate appearance, meaning he finally is laying off a few. That's huge.

“We're seeing signs,” Hurdle said.

And no, there's no thought right now to send him to the minors.

“We work off patience, and we don't want to make emotional decisions based on short-term spikes, good or bad,” Neal Huntington told me Sunday. “Starling knows that. He knows we need him to be the best team we can be.”

Of Marte's slump, the GM added: “He's intelligent, he's incredibly proud, and he's a hard worker. This is his first real exposure to extended failure here, and he's struggling with it.”

That's a pretty healthy perspective. And an accurate one, too. No one who knows Marte, notably Gayo, believes he's anything other than deeply dedicated young man who needs a bloop to fall or a blast to clear a fence. But baseball punches back as ferociously as any sport on our planet. Weaknesses are found and exploited relentlessly until an answer is found.

No one's above it.

“No one that I've seen has a career path that just goes on a continual upward curve,” Huntington said.

But he quickly added: “Except maybe Albert Pujols. He didn't plateau until he was about 32. But everyone else, I mean everyone has these struggles.”

Maybe Polanco will, too.

Not to suggest that's what's keeping him down. For the billionth-and-first time, it's about the money.

But maybe this can be instructive.

“We'll see,” Huntington said. “If Polanco or any player we have struggles, our goal is to get behind him.”

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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