Kevin Gorman: Pirates need Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco to change narrative
There are perhaps no Pittsburgh Pirates who frustrate the fan base more than Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, not so much for what they are but what they aren’t.
The Pirates’ starting center fielder and right fielder, respectively, are two of their highest-paid players, but they aren’t the perennial All-Stars or MVP candidates like once projected.
Before we label Marte and Polanco what they are — dazzling talents who, at times, have been disappointments — we must remember them for what they aren’t: Healthy.
When criticizing the duo, consider that they have been playing for the Pirates out of necessity despite lingering injuries. Polanco injured his knee and throwing shoulder in an awkward slide last September, which required offseason surgery, and Marte endured a full-speed collision with shortstop Erik Gonzalez.
Where Marte and Polanco are viewed externally as part of the problem, the internal view is that they could be catalysts for a turnaround as the team starts to get healthy again.
“They’re good players,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said after Thursday’s 6-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves at PNC Park. “And we saw the best Polanco we’ve ever seen last year late. That’s the guy he wants to get to again, and Marte still wants to do some things that he hasn’t done.”
Before Josh Bell’s breakout as a home-run hitter this season, Polanco was the Pirates’ top power threat. He was amid a 23-homer, 81-RBI season — the kind of numbers he put up in 2016 — when injured last season.
Marte has batted above .300, hit 20 home runs and had 81 RBIs and 47 stolen bases — just not in the same season. When he batted .311, stole 47 bases, was selected to the All-Star Game and won a Gold Glove in 2016, it only raised expectations. That’s because he has the tools to be even better. Even when Marte hit 20 homers and stole 33 bases last season, he left everyone wanting — and expecting — more.
By baseball standards, their salaries are bargains — Marte is making $10.33 million and Polanco $5.5 million this season — but rank second and fifth on the club’s payroll. The Pirates can’t afford anything less than for them to be their top players, especially with catcher Francisco Cervelli and left fielder Corey Dickerson on the injured list.
If Pirates fans are losing patience waiting for Marte and Polanco to do things they haven’t done, this week might be one to mark on the calendar as a turning point. Since moving from second to third in the lineup May 25, Marte has gone 21 for 53 (.396) with two home runs and seven RBIs in a dozen games. Over a five-game stretch, Marte hit .542 (13 for 24) to make his batting average jump 31 points.
“It’s been a narrative here for awhile with Marte,” Hurdle said. “When Marte can go, he seems to have that ability to create a wake that can bring some other people with him.”
Marte has used a more aggressive mentality in his approach at the plate to bring the whole outfield with him. In Wednesday’s 7-4 victory over the Braves, Marte combined with Polanco and Bryan Reynolds to go 7 for 12 with three RBIs.
“I never doubted him,” Polanco said of Marte. “I know the kind of player he is. I knew it was only a matter of time. Confidence was the biggest thing. Once he got healthy …”
The same could be said for Polanco, who was warned by doctors that he wouldn’t be 100 percent this season but returned a month ahead of schedule.
For his first 15 games, Polanco slashed .317/.379/.533 with two homers and nine RBIs. The next 17 games, however, saw him slip to .175/.235/.333 with 26 strikeouts in 63 at-bats. Hurdle gave Polanco three days off, and he answered by following Colin Moran’s two-run shot to right with a homer of his own.
Defense is another story. Not only are fly balls an adventure for Polanco, but runners are testing his arm by taking extra bases. As frustrating as that has been, Polanco is staying positive in hopes that his bat eventually can make up for it.
“I don’t think anybody’s still factoring in that he wasn’t supposed to play in May,” Hurdle said. “You get back, and you get ready. How ready are you? The league lets you know.”
It’s time for Marte and Polanco to let the league know that they are worth every penny for the Pirates. This would be the perfect time for them to get back on track as Dickerson’s imminent return could turn an outfield that was an early-season weakness into a mid-season strength.
It would help if Marte and Polanco can change the narrative from what they aren’t into what they are — by playing to their potential and, for a change, exceeding expectations.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .