CLEARWATER, Fla. — Outfielder Starling Marte stepped to the plate with one out in the bottom of the 9th inning at McKechnie Field on Wednesday with a streak on the line. Marte connected for a single into center field to mark seven straight hits this spring. An impressive feat for one of the Bucs top prospects.
“Seven straight hits is a lot,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said. “I never got seven straight hits. He looks very, very confident at the plate.”
So far this spring, the 23-year-old is batting .692 (9-for-13) with four runs, a double, two homers, three RBI and a stolen base over six games.
“He’s seeing the ball well,” Hurdle said. “He’s put the ball on the ground with a bunt, swung the bat, drove a ball big time to left-center field [Wednesday]. He looks good at the plate.”
“It’s the first time I’ve gotten to see him play. As advertised. He’s got all the skills you want in a young outfielder. He can run. He can throw, go get the ball. The barrels there. There is some power there. He’s shown an aptitude for hitting. You just let him play, let him go. He’s very fun to watch”
Fans are excited about the potential of the Marte. And rightfully so. But don’t expect to see him break camp with the Pirates just yet.
“We’re not fans of jumping guys from Double-A to the big leagues,” General Manager Neal Huntington said. “There’s a reason why baseball has level-to-level. The players learn different things at different levels. Triple-A is a big level for a young hitter because those veteran pitchers can add, they can subtract, and move the ball around. They may not have 92 mph fastballs, but they’ve got knowledge. And that’s going to be a big challenge for him as he progresses through to the big leagues. Obviously a seven hit streak is not an easy thing to do. Not many achieve, if any. He’s squared up some baseballs here at spring training and shows why we’re excited about his future.”
Marte had a huge 2011 season at Double-A Altoona. He lead the Eastern League in batting, hits and doubles, and became the first player in the Curve’s 13-year history to capture the Eastern League batting title. After finishing the season with career-highs in average (.332), hits (178), doubles (38) and home runs (12), Marte was named the Eastern League Rookie-of-the-Year. Marte also set a single-season club record with 178 hits, breaking Nate McLouth’s previous record of 166 in 2004.
“He can hit just about anybody’s fastball,” Huntington said. “His command in the strike zone is getting better. Major League pitchers are going to make him hit strikes and they are going to expand. If he shows that he’ll chase out of the zone, they’re going to live out of the zone. His command of the strike zone is going to be crucial for him…There’s no doubt that he’s shown the talent, the tools, the upside, the potential that he has. It’s been fun to watch him hit. He’s hit some breaking balls. He’s destroyed some fastballs. Base running, he has unbelievable speed.”
Scouts say that Marte’s defensive skills in center field may be good enough to push All-Star Andrew McCutchen to a corner. But so far this spring, Marte has made several blunders in the outfield resulting in three errors.
“He’s continuing to work in the outfield,” Hurdle said. “He’s going to be fine there. It’s just the experience of playing here and playing confident and comfortable.”
“Defensively, he’s had some struggles this spring,” Huntington said. ‘It’s not the guy that we’ve come to expect and come to know.”
Marte looks to start the 2012 season at Triple-A Indianapolis roaming the outfield with another prospect Gorkys Hernandez. Huntington said both Marte and Hernandez will be seeing playing time in center and in left this season.
“He’ll actually bounce back and forth between center and left primarily because in our ballpark we needed two center fielders,” Huntington said. “Right now we have three in the big leagues, actually four with Nate [McLouth] as well.”
The Pirates have a lot of talent in the outfield at both the Major League level and the minor leagues. Marte, Hernandez and other prospects like Robbie Grossman, who is also at big league camp, and Josh Bell, who was a second-round pick in the 2011 draft, will be knocking on the door to Pittsburgh in the near future.
“As we move forward, Andrew becomes the key guy in center field,” Huntington said. “We very quickly have accumulated some outfield depth. We really like Alex Presley and what he’s becoming. We’re excited about Jose Tabata and what he can become. Then you start adding Gorkys Hernandez and Starling Marte, as well as some guys behind him in Robbie Grossman. We’ve very quickly accumulated some outfield depth. And that’s a great place to be. We’ll have some competition and the next three, five, seven years will be very interesting in Pittsburgh in the outfield.”