Lucky Swap Helped Get Pirates' Starling Marte Started
In the United States, 18-year-old players with tools are prized prospects. Teams throw hundreds of thousands of dollars at high school seniors later in the draft to buy them out of going to college, often times even if those tools are in need of a fair amount of refinement.
In the Dominican Republic, where players are allowed to sign at 16, team have often looked at 18-year-olds as an afterthought, usually Dominican Summer League roster filler with little leverage in negotiations.
While some of that attitude in Latin America is starting to change, it was the challenge Starling Marte faced when he was 18 and still an unsigned prospect from Santo Domingo. The other challenge was that he was playing the wrong position.
"I did a lot of tryouts as a shortstop," Marte said. "I came up as a shortstop and I wasn't getting any bites to sign. There was a tryout with the Pirates where they were looking for outfielders. So my trainer was like, 'Hey, you're going to be an outfielder today. Thank God that I had a good arm and I was able to do everything they asked from an outfield standpoint. I was able to throw the ball well and I happened to get lucky that day. (Pirates Latin American director) Rene Gayo came over and said, 'You're a member of the Pirates now.' That was obviously a tremendous moment for me."
Marte signed with the Pirates for $85,000 in January 2007, then made his debut in the DSL that summer. It didn't go well. Marte stole 16 bases in 45 games, but there was little else that went all for him offensively as he hit .220/.307/.288.
"It was the worst year professionally that I've ever had," Marte said. "I hit .220 and I really struggled. It's something that I still think about a lot and keeps me humble. I've been able to draw from that experience. I'll never forget that my first year out I hit .220 in the Dominican Summer League."
The Pirates still liked Marte's tools, though, and he went back to the DSL in 2008 and hit .296/.367/.455 with nine homers and 20 steals in 65 games. So far, the 2007 season has been the only year in which Marte hasn't hit well. After spending most of 2009 with low Class A West Virginia and 2010 with high Class A Bradenton, Marte is hitting .314/.351/.455 with five home runs and 16 stolen bases through 79 games for Double-A Altoona as a 22-year-old. Even with his early career struggles, Marte is a .299/.361/.433 career hitter.
"The pitchers are a lot more aggressive at the upper levels in Double-A," Marte said. "They attack the weaknesses. They find your weaknesses and they continue to attack it until you can show them that you've gotten better at that."
Marte's tools across the board might be the best in the Pirates organization. He's a plus-plus runner with a strong arm, good size (6-foot-2, 179 pounds), athleticism, strong hands and a quick, line-drive swing. With just 13 walks this season, Marte also knows where he needs to get better.
"Plate discipline," Marte said. "Working on being more selective and making sure I'm swinging at strikes and pitches I can handle."