Prior to the 2012 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Andrew McCutchen to a big extension. The deal paid him $51.5 M, locking up all of his arbitration years and buying out control of three free agent years. That season, McCutchen responded with a 6.8 WAR, went on to win an MVP award the next year, and the extension started looking like a massive value for the Pirates.
They might have gotten the same massive value with Starling Marte.
The Pirates extended Marte prior to the 2014 season, with the extension taking place in Spring Training, just like McCutchen’s deal. The deal guaranteed him $31 M, and bought out control of his first three free agent years. And already, it is looking like a steal.
Marte quietly had an amazing season in 2014. He started off slow, hitting for a .612 OPS in the month of April. He picked up the pace a big in May, with a .780 OPS. He struggled in the first half of June, but once Gregory Polanco arrived in Pittsburgh, he picked up the pace. Marte finished the month of June with a .901 OPS after Polanco’s promotion, and he didn’t look back. From July to the end of the season, he had a .932 OPS, and finished the year with a 13 game hitting streak.
To put those numbers in perspective, Andrew McCutchen had a .964 OPS from July to the end of the season. McCutchen didn’t have a rocky first half, but both players were impact hitters in the second half. Adding more perspective, Marte finished 11th among hitters in the majors in WAR in the second half, falling behind teammates Russell Martin and Josh Harrison. His OPS after the All-Star break ranked fourth in baseball, behind Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo, and Buster Posey.
Of course, Marte’s greatness isn’t just confined to the second half. Over the last two years he has combined for an 8.6 WAR, which ranks 30th among all position players in baseball. He’s not at Andrew McCutchen’s level (ranking second to only Mike Trout), but Marte is emerging as one of the top position players in the game.
There are things to criticize about Marte’s game. He doesn’t walk enough (although he did improve from a 4.4 BB% in 2012-2013 to a 6.1% in 2014), and he’ll make some mistakes on the bases due to his all-out style (still had a 5.8 BsR this year, showing positive value on the bases). Those mistakes can also carry over to the field at times. He strikes out a lot, leading to concerns that he won’t be able to hit in the long-term in the majors. But Marte’s speed allows him to keep a high average and a high OBP, despite the strikeouts and low walk totals. He had a 14.5% infield hit rate this year, which ranked 2nd in baseball, behind Mike Trout.
Marte hasn’t quite received the recognition as one of the top position players in the game, but he’s quietly already there. When he was coming up through the minors, there were concerns about his K/BB rates, along with his lack of power. He’s added some power since then, although a focus on power might take away from the biggest strength of his game — his speed. As long as he keeps using his speed to get on base, he should continue to be a productive hitter.
The Pirates have Marte under control through the 2021 season. Right now he isn’t guaranteed more than $10 M a year, and won’t make more than $13.5 M in any year of his deal. That’s the definition of a team friendly deal, especially since his value on the open market right now would earn him at least $20 M per year.
The Pirates have a Dream Outfield with McCutchen, Marte, and Gregory Polanco all under control through at least the 2018 season. That’s McCutchen’s last year of control. They also have a lot of promising outfield prospects in the minors, although Josh Bell will be making the switch to first base this off-season, and Austin Meadows is several years away from being a starting option.
Prior to the 2013 season, the feeling among Pirates fans seemed to be that Marte was the most expendable among the Pirates’ outfielders. I’m not counting out Gregory Polanco yet, and still think he can be a star, and possibly the best of the trio. Even if Marte is the “worst” of the group, he would still be one of the best players in the game. Marte should be viewed in the same light as McCutchen going forward. The Pirates have a highly productive player under a very team friendly deal. The only time they should consider parting ways with him is when his contract is up, and if there is another stud outfield prospect ready to take over for him at that time.