The Pittsburgh Pirates began scouting Starling Marte more than a decade ago, when he was a teenager growing up in the Dominican Republic. After careful consideration, they picked him, making his deal official on Jan. 4, 2007.
He played his first game in their summer league at 18 years old, starting his long climb to the big leagues, through the Gulf Coast and Sally League. He graduated from Class A Lynchburg, Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis, a five-year journey with the player, his coaches and his managers sharing the investment of time in his future. On July 26, 2012, just a couple of months before Marte’s 24th birthday, he made his debut in the big leagues, leading off, batting ahead of Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen.
Marte hit a homer in that first at-bat, and less than two years later, the Pirates bet $31 million on him -- in a deal structure that extends through 2021. But shortly after Pittsburgh’s loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday, his value to the organization was torpedoed, like a collapsed stock, when the team was informed that Marte was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for Nandrolone, a performance-enhancing drug.
For the Pirates, what has happened with Marte is not exactly like a house burning down without insurance, but it’s something akin to that. They cannot recoup what is now squandered with Marte, a situation in which they have no real control and no formal oversight. Major League Baseball and the players' association control the testing process and penalties; all teams can do is hope they don’t get the phone call the Pirates got Monday night.
As a small-market franchise, Pittsburgh has very little margin for error. The Pirates need to be effective in their choices, and they need to be lucky, especially now, as they prepare for the inevitable departure of McCutchen. They struggle to keep their best home-grown players, whose salaries eventually outgrow the Pirates’ payroll capabilities. And McCutchen’s potential value in the market may soon evolve beyond what Pittsburgh can comfortably pay to a star whose performance has reached a tipping point.
With that transition looming, with everyone aware that this could be McCutchen’s last summer in a Pirates uniform, this is an extraordinarily important year for the Pirates. The Chicago Cubs, a monster franchise with more talent, more money and the sport’s reigning champions inhabit their division, as do the Cardinals, a franchise that just about owns the Midwest. The Pirates had to have everything go right to keep up.
But Jung Ho Kang is stuck in South Korea, in visa purgatory after getting hit with another DUI. The Pirates may have to play this season without their best power hitter, which is why Marte -- developed and nurtured for a decade, and paid for -- is so incredibly important. The Pirates moved McCutchen from center to right field over the winter, an uncomfortable conversation for everyone. But Marte is supposed to be the team’s best defender, the best and most important offensive player, and, once McCutchen is gone, Marte was the leading candidate to be the face of the franchise.
Now Marte is gone, just like that, and it’s impossible for him to ever fulfill his end of the deal with the Pirates. Even if Pittsburgh is still in contention when he is reinstated, he will be ineligible for the 2017 postseason, and questions about his legitimacy will hover over him into the future. The Pirates have no way of knowing whether the guy who is supposed to be a cornerstone player has been a long-term user who somehow skated through the PED testing. They don’t know who he’ll be going forward, perhaps without benefit of PEDs, or how much they can count on him.
Those doubts about Marte will fester throughout the industry, so if the Pirates ever decide to trade Marte, they may struggle to get anything close to the return they might’ve gotten before news about Marte’s suspension broke.
A team that needs to be lucky has instead been luckless, in a crushing turn.