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Marte ready to return to center in 2018

Pirates outfielder missed 81 games due to suspension last season
MLB.com @adamdberry

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It was only a year ago the Pirates realigned their outfield and put Starling Marte in center, a 13-game experiment that ended with his 80-game suspension following a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs. When he returned, he did so as Pittsburgh's left fielder.

Marte reported to the Pirate City clubhouse on Thursday morning, once again arriving as the Pirates' "new" center fielder, and he promised that this year won't bring more of the same turbulence that defined his first tenure in that position.

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It was only a year ago the Pirates realigned their outfield and put Starling Marte in center, a 13-game experiment that ended with his 80-game suspension following a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs. When he returned, he did so as Pittsburgh's left fielder.

Marte reported to the Pirate City clubhouse on Thursday morning, once again arriving as the Pirates' "new" center fielder, and he promised that this year won't bring more of the same turbulence that defined his first tenure in that position.

"Going through what I went through last season, it was tough. It was hard. I grew a lot," Marte said through an interpreter. "I'm coming into this season with a brand-new mentality, a mentality to help my team like never before."

Marte might have remained in center all of last season had he not been suspended, and the Bucs might have put him back there upon his return if not for the presence of Andrew McCutchen. But with McCutchen traded to the Giants, there is no question: The job now belongs to Marte.

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"He's always been so respectful of Andrew that he hasn't really let it out how much he wants to play center and how excited he is for this opportunity," general manager Neal Huntington said. "But center field is his, and we're excited for him to go own that."

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Still, there will be questions. From the moment Marte was suspended, he has insisted his previous performance was clean. He said Thursday he did not change his usual offseason training routine, but he did become "more knowledgeable" regarding his diet and supplement use.

"I've reached a point where I kind of just trust nobody," Marte said. "You've got to really earn that from me, to put something in my body, whether it's some type of diet or supplement, or anything like that. I've grown a lot. I've learned a huge lesson. Definitely becoming a lot more aware and conscious."

After averaging 5.2 Wins Above Replacement from 2013-16, Marte struggled before and after his suspension last season. The first two weeks of the year, he played with the knowledge of his positive PED test. The last 2 1/2 months, he struggled to catch up after a half-season on the sidelines.

Video: STL@PIT: Marte launches go-ahead two-run jack to left

Marte batted .275 in 77 games, and his OPS dropped to .712. But he maintained his production on the bases, stealing 21 bases, and totaled eight Defensive Runs Saved. The Pirates expect his overall performance will bounce back to the All-Star level he showed in 2016.

"I believe he wants to go out and play the game the way he's capable of, and that's going to be pretty special in center field," manager Clint Hurdle said. "That's going to be special on the bases. He can do things at the plate that are significant to help our club."

But Hurdle plainly stated that Marte will not be expected to carry the team -- no one player will, in fact. While Marte made it clear he will miss McCutchen, a highly positive influence on his career, he said that he and fellow outfielder Gregory Polanco don't feel any obligation to prove they can replace the former face of the franchise.

"We very well recognize that we lost a great athlete in Andrew McCutchen. However, we don't feel much pressure when it comes to that," Marte said. "We recognize that we have a role, the same way we've always recognized it when he was on the team or not."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Starling Marte