Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder and two-time Gold Glove winner Starling Marte has been suspended 80 games for using a performance-enhancing drug. How will the Pirates’ outfield look now that it’s missing its finest member?
The Pittsburgh Pirates are in trouble.
Tuesday afternoon, MLB announced that outfielder Starling Marte would be suspended 80 games after testing positive for the performance-enhancing drug, Nandrolone.
It’s a big loss for the Pirates for many reasons…
Starling Marte is 1 of 2 outfielders with 4.5+ WAR in each of the last 4 seasons. The other is Mike Trout. https://t.co/5JEfagdedQ
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 18, 2017
Remember: Marte will be ineligible for postseason if #Pirates qualify – and that possibility takes a major hit with his suspension.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) April 18, 2017
The soonest that Marte can return is after the All-Star Break. The two-time Gold Glover’s first game back would be July 18 against the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park.
With Starling Marte out until mid-July, the Pirates’ outfield will take on a different look. Most importantly, who goes in center field?
Presumably, this suspension means that the Andrew McCutchen right field experiment will be put on hold. McCutchen, who has played 1,175 games in center field, likely goes back to his most comfortable position. Despite McCutchen recording a league-worst -18.7 ultimate zone rating among qualified outfielders last season, the Pirates may have to put him back where he is most familiar.
Enter Austin Meadows?
If not McCutchen, there is always No. 1 prospect Austin Meadows. At three different levels last season, Meadows hit a combined .266 with 12 home runs and stole 17 bases. The bulk of Meadows’ success came with Double-A Altoona, where he hit .311 with a .365 on-base percentage in 190 plate appearances.
Defensively, Meadows manned center field for 67 games and played in left field 14 times. He never took to right field in 2016, but has played it once this season.
If Meadows is called up, he’s likely be put in center. There should not be any hesitancy to call up Meadows for fear of losing an extra year of control of him either.
FWIW, if Pirates do call up uberprospect Austin Meadows, they will not run the risk of having him earn a full year of service this season.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) April 18, 2017
That said, the Pirates may choose to keep Meadows in Triple-A longer. He’s struggled there through 10 games this season.
#Pirates top outfield prospect Austin Meadows, the logical replacement for Marte, off to slow start at Triple A: .162/.220/.270 in 41 PAs.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) April 18, 2017
Since being promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis last season, Meadows has hit .202. This season, he strikeout percentage is at a career-worst 24.4.
If Meadows is called up, he will play in center and McCutchen will stay in right. If Meadows is not called up and McCutchen goes back to center field, suddenly there will be a battle for right field between a few players.
Adam Frazier a full time player?
The Pirates’ super-utility do-it-all player could find himself as a full-time starter at last with Starling Marte’s suspension. Adam Frazier is a regular in the lineup, but switches positions each day based on who is getting the day off or is hurt. This season, Frazier has played left field, second base, shortstop, third base and also was a designated hitter once.
For what it’s worth, Frazier played right field 16 times last season and posted a -0.7 ultimate zone rating and .923 fielding percentage there.
Frazier’s defense has always hurt him, but his bat may be too good to ignore any longer. He is hitting .308 so far and has posted a .372 on-base percentage. The Pirates are still looking for a consistent leadoff batter and with Marte out, Frazier may be the best option.
If the Pirates choose to put Frazier in right, they will have to hope that playing right field every day will only improve his defense.
Jose Osuna …For Now?
After tearing up Spring Training by hitting .407 and leading the Pirates in home runs (5) and RBI (17), Jose Osuna may finally make it to the big leagues. Despite essentially being an unknown to most Pirates fans entering 2017, Osuna was one of the last cuts at the conclusion of Grapefruit League play.
Like Meadows, Osuna would be making his major-league debut if he was called up today. For eight seasons in the minors, Osuna has hit .278 and posted a .330 on-base percentage. Osuna was eligible for the Rule-5 Draft before Spring Training until the Pirates put him on the 40-man roster. Osuna responded with the aforementioned stellar spring.
What may work against Osuna is his minimal experience in right field. Osuna spent the bulk of last season at first base and only played in right 16 times while at Altoona and Indianapolis. Of his 732 career minor league games, Osuna has appeared in right field 109 times and has committed seven errors
The 24-year-old from Venezuela is not on any top prospect lists for the Pirates and is not raved about by minor league scouts. That said, the Pirates surely still remember his strong spring. Similar to Frazier, Osuna’s bat could find him a spot in the Pirates’ lineup.
If Frazier and Osuna lack experience in right field, then Jaso has the minimum. After struggling at the plate last season, Jaso has found playing time this season as a late-game defensive replacement at first base while Josh Bell continues to learn the position.
In an attempt to become more versatile and earn more playing time, Jaso began working out as an outfielder in Spring Training. Jaso only has three appearances in right field in 454 career major-league games, one of which came this season.
While Jaso’s bat leaves plenty to be desired, his defensive work at first base last season was admirable. After spending the 2016 learning a brand new position, the former catcher posted a .994 fielding percentage and only committed five errors. Now, Jaso is brought in more often for his defense than for his bat. If put in right, perhaps Jaso would similarly show a willingness to learn the position and become a capable right fielder.
Another reason that Jaso may get the spot is because he’s a left-handed hitter, unlike Osuna. Frazier hits lefty too, but manager Clint Hurdle may still want to use Frazier as an infielder when he plays.
In Spring Training, Jaso hit .302 in 43 at bats and smacked three home runs. After hitting .268 and posting a .353 on-base percentage in 2016, Jaso is hoping he can build off a strong spring. Since he packs minimal power in his bat (eight home runs in 2016), Jaso will have to get on base more regularly in 2017 to warrant a regular lineup spot. Even then, he’s still a long shot thanks to his lack of experience in right.
No easy answer
There’s no way to properly replace Starling Marte. He was the Pirates’ best player in 2016 and likely would have been again in 2017. For now, the Pirates are going with Osuna.
Sure enough, the Pirates announce Jose Osuna has been recalled from Triple-A. He'll be in St. Louis tonight.
— Adam Berry (@adamdberry) April 18, 2017
Even though he is up, that does not guarantee that he is the everyday right fielder… yet.
From here, it’s about damage control. Hurdle has plenty of options for how to literally replace Starling Marte in the field and at the plate, but none of them will perform at the same level as Marte.
Photo credit – Gina Riley