When Starling Marte speaks of submitting to whatever ideas the Pittsburgh Pirates have for him this season, the 30-year-old centerfielder says he not only “recognized and acknowledged but embraced” that their longest-tenured player also should be one of their leaders.
That might seem natural for an eighth-year veteran, but it’s a lot to ask of a streaky player who served an 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in 2017 and was benched last August for his lack of effort in running out a ground ball.
Marte is starting to realize that the Pirates are his team, one that is counting on him to play to his potential. And he knows that his every move is being watched, especially by his fellow Dominican players.
“That leadership role is now part of me – part of my uniform, part of my mentality, a part of my character – and I have always recognized in this organization I have a lot of eyes on me,” Marte said, through interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “A lot of young guys have their eyes on me, whether they’re in this organization or not, and I’ve got to continue to work hard and be intentional and be the example, to try to be intelligent in my decision-making and try to be smart in the moves that I make.
“I want to be a baseball player that has been an influence to people, that has been a motivation to people, an inspiration to the younger guys coming up. So, I do recognize that, being one of the guys that has been here the longest and a leader of the team and this organization, that’s just part of who I am now.”
Marte might want to wear it like a Stargell Star on his baseball cap, but the Pirates are hoping that more than a leadership label will stick. They see his tantalizing talent and believe the two-time Gold Glove winner and 2016 All-Star is capable of being one of baseball’s superstars.
A season in which Marte was voted the Pirates’ MVP only left everyone wanting more. As good as Marte was in slashing .277/.327/.460 with 20 home runs, 72 RBI and 32 stolen bases, only his OPS and homers were career-highs. He hit 34 points below his career-best batting average, had two fewer doubles, five fewer triples and nine fewer RBI.
“I’ve been telling that to him for years, ‘You’re better than this,’” said Pirates rightfielder Gregory Polanco, one of Marte’s closest confidantes. “He’s been in the All-Star Game and a Gold Glover but he’s an MVP kind of player. He’s got everything. He’s got to focus and play hard because he’s got the talent. I’ve been waiting for him to do more. I expect him to do more every time because I trust him.”
That’s the question with Marte this season: Can the Pirates trust him to be the player who finally lives up to his potential?
“He got it and he’s working really hard,” Polanco added. “I feel really good about him this year. It’s time, MVP. It really is time.”
Time is running out on Marte to live up to the promise he showed by hitting his first major-league pitch for a homer and developing into a dynamic defender who can hit for average and power. Marte will make $10 million this season, and his play could determine whether the Pirates exercise club options at $11.5 million in 2020 and $12.5 million in ’21.
Marte knows that he has left everyone wanting more, whether it’s improving to become a 30-30 performer or simply showing more consistency after sandwiching his best months of the season (May and July) around his worst – a June that saw him slash .194/.245/.323.
“It’s always an honor and very special when I recognize that there’s people that see so much potential in me and recognize what I can reach, what I can do and believe that I can do even more,” Marte said. “That always means a lot to me. But, like I’ve mentioned before, my focus is to continue working hard, continue to be the best teammate that I can, continue to be the best player out there on the field and help my team win in any way possible.”
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has seen signs of maturation from Marte, including his willingness to conduct interviews in English at PiratesFest in January. Marte is making an effort to be a better communicator, even if he believes his message is more profound through a translator. That isn’t lost on the Pirates, who see it as a step in the right direction.
“He’s taking it upon himself to be intentional with growing up and maturing in all phases, from his social skills to his professional skills to his personal skills,” Hurdle said. “Where he takes the leadership, time will tell. He has been more inclined to be a leader by example.
“Starling is doing a lot of the things that you want to see a young man do to take the next step, personally and professionally and athletically. I just love it when guys are hunting the right stuff, and I believe he’s hunting the right stuff.”
All eyes are on Marte to prove that he can become the player the Pirates projected, the leader they want and the superstar they need. As good as he has been, we are waiting for more and expect more from Marte.
As good as Marte is, he’s better than this. It’s time. It really is time.