Starling Marte's suspension leaves gap in Pirates roster

Is PED use still prevalent in the MLB? (1:12)

Michael Smith and Jemele Hill discuss the impact of Starling Marte's 80-game suspension and the current culture of steroid use compared with years past. (1:12)

ST. LOUIS -- One veteran scout who attended Tuesday night's Pittsburgh Pirates game in St. Louis described the blow of losing Starling Marte for 80 games.

"Kills them," he said.

Asked to elaborate, he didn't exactly make things sound any less debilitating for the Pirates after Marte, their rightful center fielder and most valuable player, got hit with a suspension for using the performance-enhancing drug Nandrolone.

"It's not good," he said. "It hurts them defensively. It hurts their power. It hurts their speed. He's the best athlete on the team."

It's hard to overestimate the impact, psychologically and otherwise, of losing a player like Marte, midstream, for a reason other than injury. So the Pirates didn't underestimate it. They copped to the pain it will inflict. Their clubhouse was quiet before Tuesday night's game, and it was quieter still after a 2-1 loss to the Cardinals.

"It's hard to lose a player like that for 80 games," Gregory Polanco said after the game. "You know the impact Marte made on us. You have to play, you know. This is our job. We have to go through this, and you have try not to think about it during the game."

That's easier said than done, apparently. The news seemed to stop the Pirates' momentum dead in its tracks. They came into this series off a rousing sweep of the world champion Cubs at Wrigley Field to play a 3-9 Cardinals team that wasn't doing many things right.

In the first two games in St. Louis, against mid-rotation pitchers Lance Lynn and Mike Leake, the Pirates scored a total of one run, losing both games. They looked as lifeless as can be. This is the kind of news that can send a team sinking to the depths immediately.

Three pitches into Tuesday's game, the Pirates felt the sting of losing their most dynamic defender. Adam Frazier, playing right field because of Marte's absence, kicked a ball that ricocheted off the wall, turning a Dexter Fowler double into a triple. Fowler scored on Stephen Piscotty's checked-swing dribbler that might as well have been a squeeze-play bunt. In other words, the margin of defeat wouldn't have existed, most likely, had Marte been in center and Andrew McCutchen in right.

Going into this season, the Pirates shuffled their outfield defense out of desperation. Last year, they converted only 88.6 percent of fly balls into outs, the second-worst mark in the National League.

Asked how losing his most athletic outfielder would impact his team's ability to catch the ball, manager Clint Hurdle said before the game, “I'm not even going to go there.”

McCutchen's defensive liabilities in center, which forced a difficult conversation for Hurdle in spring training, must have been a sore subject by Tuesday. Hurdle did, however, “go there,” eventually.

“We're going to put people out there. We're going to man every position. Time will tell,” Hurdle said. “There have been situations where, on paper, things look a certain way. The beautiful thing about this is, the people that analyze the game and the people who write about the game and the people who work the game, things happen. You don't have answers for them until you put men out there and give them the opportunity to play, and that's what I'm looking forward to.”

Then again, one year doesn't always predict the next. McCutchen rated last season as the worst center fielder in the league by defensive runs saved, but maybe he had such bad defensive numbers because he was hurt and wasn't letting on. He looks like he still has the ability to play a good center field. Playing shallow with Leake, a 160-pound pitcher, up in the third inning, McCutchen ran 98 feet to catch a deep drive into the right-center-field gap.

According to Statcast, Leake's drive would have been caught 63 percent of the time. That made it a decent, if not spectacular, play, but one that a significant number of center fielders wouldn't have made, perhaps including McCutchen last year.

After the running catch, TV cameras caught McCutchen demonstrably saying something that appeared to be, “This is my spot!” and pointing to the ground.

McCutchen also made a nice play to cut off Greg Garcia's double in the fifth inning, getting the ball to relay man Josh Harrison, who threw out Garcia at third.

“He's played there before, and he looked good out there tonight. He looked very good out there tonight,” Hurdle said. “I didn't anticipate him not looking good out there tonight.”

The Pirates are increasingly swimming in shark-infested waters in the NL Central. The Cubs, now that they won the World Series and built a system that could dominate for a decade, are no longer cuddly.

And the Cardinals, with a $1 billion TV deal kicking in next season, are intent on bridging the gap as quickly as possible. The Cardinals spent $110 million signing free agents Fowler and Brett Cecil over the winter, then followed with $144 million worth of extensions for homegrown players Yadier Molina, Carlos Martinez and Piscotty. They blew through their international spending limits in the last period, signing five Latin American players to bonuses of at least $1 million.

It's a neighborhood the Pirates have survived in well the past few seasons despite a sub-$100 million payroll. They actually trimmed $8 million from the payroll over the winter despite reportedly making $51 million in profit last year. Losing two of their best three players for off-the-field reasons just might take the fight out of them, for a while, too. Third baseman Jung Ho Kang, the third-most valuable Pirate by Baseball Reference WAR (Marte was first) is in South Korea, denied a work visa because of a third DUI conviction.

Marte has been the Pirates' most valuable player since 2015, with 7.5 fWAR since then. Pirates GM Neal Huntington tried to say the right things, that the Pirates have the depth to fill in, that guys will continue to play hard, but you could hear an air of desperation when he discussed the blow to his small-market team.

“We've got two next-man-up opportunities with off-field activities impacting what we're trying to do on the field, but we're going to come back to that organizational depth,” Huntington said. “This is what you prepare for.”

Can you ever truly prepare for something like this?