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Marte continuing progress in winter ball

Starling Marte's next dream is about to come true.

Hitting a home run on the first pitch thrown to him in a Major League game -- July 26, Houston -- was pretty good. But 24-year-old uber-talents zeroing in on their destinies don't run out of wish lists so quick, and the Pirates outfielder could realize a lifelong fantasy Tuesday night.

He could be playing on the same field as his childhood idol, Vladimir Guerrero.

The fellow Dominicans' big league career paths criss-crossed. By the time Marte arrived last summer, Guerrero had departed -- not getting a satisfactory contract offer after hitting .290 as Baltimore's regular designated hitter in 2011.

Their native country's Winter League will enable a meeting. Guerrero has just latched on with Licey, and Marte has been lighting it up with Escogido for a couple of weeks.

Escogido hosts Licey on Tuesday, and Marte hopes to come away with more memories. He only wishes Guerrero had suited up a little earlier, on Oct. 28, when Marte went 4-for-5 against Licey. Overall, the Bucs' probable Opening Day left fielder is hitting .346 with an on-base percentage of .452.

The development suggested by those numbers confirms the reasons Pirates management remains a proponent of winter ball for young players. The high intensity of games in Latin America and the typically different pitching tactics can be of immense benefit, according to manager Clint Hurdle.

"You're always playing for something down there," said Hurdle, alluding to the daily pressure. "I'd encourage anyone to experience that. And for guys challenged by spin and soft stuff ... you want to see changeups and breaking balls? Go to Mexico."

In the season's "exit interviews" with his players, Hurdle recommended playing winter ball to about 10 of them, unidentified because this seeming innocuous gesture became a point of controversy a year ago. The club wanted Pedro Alvarez to play, but he declined, and his progress during the season was often viewed through that prism.

At any rate, 23 members of the Pittsburgh organization are playing winter ball. Most of them are younger prospects participating in their native leagues, but they also include other mainliners such as Marte.

Also in the Dominican, Jose (Jumbo) Diaz is continuing to try to become more than a very big curiosity. The 350-pound right-handed reliever is a constant source of amusement --- his steal of third in Indianapolis' final game of the season provoked chuckles all the way in PNC Park -- but he also keeps putting up serious numbers.

The 28-year-old Minor League lifer has a 12-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in nine outings for Este, with a 3.12 ERA in 8 2/3 innings. In his first full Triple-A season, Diaz posted a 3.60 ERA in 41 appearances with the Indians. That came after he'd allowed one hit in 4 1/3 innings with the Bucs in Spring Training.

Despite carrying all that weight on his 6-foot-4 frame, Diaz is an impressively good athlete. It could be time to take him seriously.

Outfielder Gregory Polanco, who hit .325 in Class A West Virginia this season, went 4-for-16 in his first week after joining Escogido.

Incidentally, Dave Jauss, named to Hurdle's coaching staff last week, is managing Oriente and has the Estrellas in a first-place tie with Aguilas Cinbaenas with a record of 9-6.

In Mexico, catcher Ali Solis, whom the Bucs recently claimed on waivers from the Padres, is having a tough time with Culiacan. The right-handed batter is 8-for-45 overall with as many hits in 11 at-bats off lefties as in 34 at-bats against right-handers.

The Pirates have their biggest presence in Venezuela, where the 10 organizational players include Jose Tabata, who is on Anzoategui's roster but has yet to see any action, and catcher Ramon Cabrera.

Cabrera spent most of last season with Double-A Altoona and could receive some consideration as a possible late-season backup for projected starter Michael McKenry. He is hitting .105 in his first 10 games with Caracas.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Starling Marte