Few teams had a more painful close to 2019 than the Pirates.
They won just 25 of their 73 games after the All-Star break, posting a lower win percentage than everyone except the Marlins and Tigers. Longtime manager Clint Hurdle was let go, and three former Pirates (Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow and Gerrit Cole) went on to star in the postseason. Then, the team dismissed general manager Neal Huntington on Monday.
Next season could bring more tough times, especially with Pittsburgh’s ace, Jameson Taillon, sidelined until 2021 following Tommy John surgery. But the closing of the Pirates’ most competitive window in decades brings an opportunity to invest in their next window. Specifically: Now might be the time to shop center fielder Starling Marte.
On one hand, Marte has been a steady, sometimes star-level contributor (his 80-game suspension in 2017 aside) over eight years in Pittsburgh, and he could keep contributing for the Pirates at an affordable rate; Pittsburgh possesses club options on his contract for $11.5 million in ’20 and $12.5 million in ’21.
But Marte’s contract also makes him an attractive trade piece with club control, in a market suffering from a significant dearth of free-agent center fielders. Furthermore, whoever replaces Huntington won't have any kind of allegiance to Marte, which could make a deal more likely. In his age-30 season, Marte put up the best power numbers (23 HR, .208 ISO) of his career and his best league-adjusted OPS+ since 2014, and even if he’s able to repeat that production in his age-31 and 32 seasons, the Pirates might still fall short of the Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers and even the Reds. Pittsburgh previously pursued trades with its players before they reached their final year of club control -- and maybe it will do just that with Marte at the 2020 Trade Deadline.
But a player’s value can plummet for all sorts of reasons between today and July 31, 2020. Here’s why it would be smart to start shopping Marte right now.
The return might never be better
This starts with Marte himself, because he still displayed a lot of tools in his age-30 campaign. In fact, he might have been one of this season’s most overlooked stars, particularly while his team’s season went south.
Those sliders above represent Marte’s 2019 Statcast rankings via Baseball Savant. Teams will immediately look to the physical tools when evaluating a center fielder, and Marte can still cover real estate. His average sprint speed of 29.0 feet per second average -- a tick higher than his prior three seasons -- placed him in the 92nd percentile among qualified baserunners. Marte’s jumps on balls hit his way were a foot better than the average MLB fielder, tying him for ninth out of 98 qualified outfielders. He finished with 2 Outs Above Average, per Statcast, and the 10th-highest average arm strength (94.2 mph) among qualified outfielders on max-effort throws. He showed he’s still plenty capable of handling an everyday center field spot.
On offense, Marte set career highs in homers (23), RBIs (82), slugging (.503) and OPS (.845). The Statcast returns were just as encouraging: He barreled more balls than ever before and recorded a .303 expected batting average (a metric based on batted-ball quality and strikeouts) that tied him with Mike Trout for sixth out of 137 qualified hitters (min. 500 PA) -- and right behind five of the other very best hitters this year.
In 2019, Marte fielded well at a premium position, created offense on the basepaths (25 steals out of 31 attempts) and hit for average and power at the plate. That would make him a strong trade candidate in any offseason, but he really sticks out this year. The top free-agent center fielders, as of the opening of this winter’s negotiating period, include Cameron Maybin, Jarrod Dyson, Billy Hamilton, Carlos Gomez, Leonys Martin and Juan Lagares -- a group that combined for less than 2 fWAR and featured just one player who was considered an everyday player. Even if the Red Sox trade Mookie Betts, he hasn’t been an everyday center fielder since ’15.
The Pirates can look at that list and basically corner the market if they make Marte available. Pittsburgh’s current trajectory, coupled with a wide-open market, gives the Bucs a unique opportunity to be proactive.
Who might be interested?
Nearly every team could use Marte in its outfield, but here’s some clubs that make the most sense:
Mets: Even with the emergence of Michael Conforto, Jeff McNeil and Brandon Nimmo in recent years, this is a team in dire need of a true center fielder. The Mets could also use a right-handed outfielder to balance out the lefties in Conforto and Nimmo. General manager Brodie Van Wagenen tried to fill that hole in 2019 with veterans like Gomez, Lagares, Aaron Altherr and Keon Broxton, but after three straight seasons without October baseball in Queens, it’s high time that New York stopped putting its players out of position in the outfield.
Reds: Cincinnati has seen Marte first-hand through the years, and this would be an opportunity to put Nick Senzel back in a more comfortable space in the infield. The Reds already traded top center-field prospect Taylor Trammell to the Padres in the Trevor Bauer deal, so acquiring Marte could accelerate their competitive timeline even further.
Cubs: Chicago began benching Albert Almora Jr. down the stretch, signaling it might not believe that his bat will catch up to his glove. The Cubs are still near the top of their competitive bell curve, and have several current big leaguers (Almora, David Bote, Ian Happ and Addison Russell, to name a few) who could yield a decent return for Pittsburgh.
Blue Jays: The kids have arrived, and the Toronto fanbase is already itching for the next step toward contention. None of the Blue Jays’ prospects have taken ownership of the club’s center-field spots, and Teoscar Hernandez and Randal Grichuk aren’t everyday candidates up the middle, as you can see below.
Phillies: Signing Bryce Harper, along with the other acquisitions that Philly made last offseason, put this team squarely in win-now mode. That means the Phillies might not have time to be patient with Adam Haseley or Scott Kingery in center field, and it’s unclear if they’re willing to stick with Odúbel Herrera once he’s reinstated from his suspension. They might as well keep adding veteran pieces like Marte, if he’s made available.
Rangers: Delino DeShields (70 OPS+ over the last four seasons) hasn’t hit enough to justify an everyday spot in the lineup, and they could preserve their best hitter in Joey Gallo by keeping him away from the wear and tear of center field. There’s Major League talent on Texas’ roster, including slugger Nomar Mazara (entering his age-25 season), that the Pirates could acquire and plug into their lineup right away.
Braves: Would Atlanta deal away an elite center field defender like Ender Inciarte? That might be a stretch, but Inciarte’s contract is attractive (owed $16.4 million through 2021, with a $9 million club option for ’22), and doing so could enable the Braves to replace him with a better hitter in Marte without losing a ton on defense. A trio of Ronald Acuña Jr. in left field, Marte in center and Nick Markakis in right would be a real strong outfield unit. And for Pittsburgh, the Braves have plenty of developing prospects to choose from in negotiations.