Tuesday, February 28, 2012

#3 Prospect - Starling Marte

Talk about bang for your buck.  The Pirates signed Starling Marte - who was originally scouted as a pitcher - out of the Dominican Republic for a scant $85,000 bonus.  The investment turned out to be a great one.  Marte, who stands 6'2, 185 lbs according to fangraphs, oozes tools, highlighted by blazing speed and a strong arm.  Combining those tools with good jumps and reads, Marte is an elite defensive centerfielder.  On the other side of the game, Marte's bat has developed nicely, making him a very good overall prospect. 
Marte started off his professional baseball career in the DSL in 2007 as an 18 year old.  He had an uninspiring season but did manage to steal 16 bases in 18 attempts.  Marte went back to the DSL in 2008 and responded with a great .296/.367/.455 line that included 9 HR's.  However, he also struck out 53 times in 257 AB while only walking 16 times over that same span. In 2009, Marte moved quickly, spending most of his season at Low-A West Virginia.  There, he put up a .312/.377/.439 line, showing off very good contact skills along with drawing rave reviews for his glove in centerfield.  Marte's 2009 season - his first one stateside - really made talent evaluators stand up and take notice, putting him firmly on the prospect map as a tool shed with the ability to hit the ball.  Marte's plate discipline again stood out as a negative.  The centerfielder walked at a abysmal 4.9% rate while striking out at a poor 22.3% rate. 

Going into 2010, Marte saw himself on John Sickels's top 20 prospect list for the first time. Sickels ranked him 8th, giving him a C+ grade and stating about Marte, "Uber-tools, particularly speed, but raw with the strike zone."  Now one of the Pirates most exciting prospects, Marte responded to the praise with a good, but injury-riddled season.  He finished the year with a .315/.386/.432 line, showing the ability to get on base via hits, but displaying little power in the process.  To produce that complete line, Marte's season was actually split in the middle by hamate surgery, which often saps power, an explanation for Marte's grand total of 0 homeruns.  Again Marte showed poor plate discipline with a 4.7% walk rate and 23.3% strikeout rate, showing a bit of decline rather than improvement from the year prior.

Still, Marte's tools were undeniable and while Sickels ranked him 10th instead of 8th going into 2011, it was due to more depth being added to the Pirates system.  Marte himself was still graded as a C+ technically, but given the caveat "Borderline B-."  About the Pirates prospect, Sickels commented, "Can hit for average, dangerous on the bases, but lack of strike zone judgment and home run power are issues."  In 2011, Marte did plenty to answer those issues, especially the latter one.  Promoted to Altoona, Marte was able to play a full healthy season, amassing 572 plate appearances over the course of the season.  With the bat, Marte put up .332/.370/.500 line - his best tripleslash to date - as a 22 year-old.  Perhaps his biggest step forward was in that homerun department.  Going into 2011, Marte had a grand total of 5 homeruns stateside in 537 plate appearances, with two coming on a rehab assignment in rookie ball as a 21 year-old.  In 2012 he clubbed 12 homeruns and finished the year with an ISO of .168, both career highs by a wide margin.  Marte also improved his plate discipline, at least in the strikeout department.  His walk rate actually dipped a small amount, to 3.8%, a very poor number.  On the flip side, his strikeout rate dropped from 23.3% in 2010 to 17.5% in 2011, a more than acceptable number. 

Marte's 2011 season drastically improved his prospect status.  He now finds himself on multiple top 100 lists.  Sickels has given him a B/Borderline B+ grade and ranked him 4th in the Pirates farm system.  His scouting report reads, "Hit well in Double-A, starting to develop more power, despite poor strike zone judgment. Superior defense. Still raw, needs a year of Triple-A, a wide range of possible outcomes, could become an All-Star, a mediocre regular, or a fourth outfielder."  That comment is right on the mark.  Marte will be able to play an elite defensive centerfield in the major leagues.  He has the speed to steal plenty of bases.  At the plate, he has some power potential, certainly enough for a centerfielder with his glove.  What will ultimately decide Marte's future as either a mediocre regular/4th outfielder and an All-Star is his plate discipline. 

On that subject, I present this ESPN Insider article.  It's about how Cano went from relative unknown to MLB star, but buried inside it is a comment about Cano's approach and plate discipline. It reads, "When Cano was young, he swung at almost everything," Newman said. "That was because he could hit everything. But over time, he's really improved in that area. He'll never be a player with an even average walk rate, but he definitely swings at better pitches."  I personally believe the situation is similar with Marte.  He may never become the hitter Cano is, but he has demonstrated he has an elite ability to hit for average.  Stateside, Marte's lowest batting average for an entire year is .309, which occurred in 2009.  The point being, those numbers support that Marte falls in line with what Newman said about Cano, namely, "That was because he could hit everything."  When he played at West Virginia in 2009, I saw Marte play 4 or 5 times.  It was a very small sample size, only 20 or so plate appearances, but Marte's bat control was impressive.  He often hit bad pitches out of the zone.  It's that experience and Marte's numbers that have demonstrated to hit for average that brings me to contend that like Cano, Marte will one day become a player who "swings at better pitches" even if he will "never be a player with an even average walk rate."  There's no guarantee of that, but that possibility along with Marte's elite tool set makes him my #3 Pirates prospect


  1. Agreed. So many people point to Marte's walk rate as the reason he isn't really deserving of being called a top prospect. I'd argue that if Marte had even a decent walk rate (~7%) we'd be talking about a top-10 prospect in all of baseball. A young, elite defensive CF with a cannon arm, 20-30 SB ability headed to AAA off of a .330/.400/.500 season is an untouchable prospect.

    Marte's walk rate is the reason that he's "only" in the middle of the top-100 instead of the top.

  2. Well, besides his walk rate, his only 1 year of acceptable SO rate and power, and his being at an age appropriate level as opposed to doing good against AAA as a 22 year old are reasons he isn't on most top 10 lists.

    1. Ya, he does have some other negatives, including his age (he's never been super young at any level), so top 10 is a stretch even with that walk rate, but it's not unimaginable.

      Definitely a consensus top 25 prospect if he had a 7% walk rate though.