Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Starling Marte was hoping playing winter ball would help him shake off a rough 2017 season in which he was suspended 80 games for use of performance-enhancing drugs. Instead, the opposite has happened.
According to Bill Brink of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Marte has struggled in the Dominican Winter League to the tune of a slash line of .197/.244/.316. He has 21 strikeouts in 76 at-bats and has drawn just three walks. For someone looking to prove a PED suspension and a poor 2017 performance were both flukes, this does not bode well.
A season lost
Prior to last season, Starling Marte was one of the most dynamic outfielders in the game. He could hit for average and power, had good speed on the basepaths, and was also an excellent fielder. In 2016, at age 27, Marte hit a career-best .316 and though his home run total dipped from 19 in 2015 to just nine that year, he made up for it by stealing 47 bases, also a career high. This led to Marte playing in his first All-Star Game and also taking home his second Gold Glove.
2017 could not have gone worse for Marte. He posted a slash line of .275/.333/.379 and though those aren't the worst numbers, he just did not look like himself post-suspension. He managed only seven home runs and 31 RBI, though he stole 21 bases. Though Marte's numbers weren't the worst, he certainly didn't look like the player Pirates fans knew and loved over the last few years.
Reason for hope
To be fair, there's every chance that Marte's poor 2017 was because of being on the shelf for so long, and his poor performance in winter ball could just be an extension of that. That theory is valid because looking at the deeper numbers, Marte could have just been the victim of bad luck in 2017 aside from his suspension.
First, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) stood at .324, which isn't terrible by any stretch of the imagination. His line drive rate was at 21% and just one-and-a-half points below his career mark, though 2.3 points below the rate he posted in 2016. His fly ball rate of 29.8% was actually 2.8 points higher than his career average. It's also worth noting that Marte's walk rate went up from 4.3% in 2016 to 5.9% last season, well above his career rate of 4.9%.
In fact, the only major decline Marte had in 2017 was in hard contact. The two-time All-Star posted a hard contact mark of 34.7% in 2016 compared to a mere 26.2% last season. Considering Marte's career hard contact stands at 31.2%, there lies the problem. Be the decline be due to his getting busted for PEDs or bad luck, it lends theory as to why his 2017 season was so lost.
Regardless of why Marte's 2017 performance was so poor, one thing is certain. The 2018 season is put up or shut up for him. He's 29 years old and will earn $7.5m in 2018. He has another $10m coming to him in 2019 and the Pirates own a pair of club options worth a combined $24m for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Not only that, the team is in a position where a rebuild may be inevitable, meaning players like former MVP Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, and Gerrit Cole may need to be traded just for the sake of restocking the farm system.
Where Marte fits into this equation is that though he only has two guaranteed years left on his contract, he is setting himself up to be an albatross around the Pittsburgh brass's neck. If he continues to perform at a sub-average level in 2018 and further prove that his initial success was because of PEDs, no team will want to trade for Marte even if Pittsburgh sells him as low as humanly possible. This could lead to him either playing out the rest of the deal on bad Pirates teams or, worse, getting outright released with management opting to just eat the money.
Hopefully, the poor winter performance is just bad luck and Marte bounces back in time for Spring Training.