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Using spring to sharpen up, Marte eyes improvement

Pirates left fielder looks to cut down injuries without sacrificing leadoff presence

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Approaching his second full Major League season, Starling Marte strongly feels he will improve on his 2013 performance, partly because he feels strong after a relatively inactive offseason.

Unlike the previous couple of years, the Dominican outfielder only dabbled in his country's Winter League.

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"I didn't play as much as I used to," Marte said, with coach Heberto Andrade translating. "I'm ready to work. I feel fresh, good."

Marte played three regular-season games with Escogido -- just enough to get in some practice in getting hurt, something Marte does almost as well as run.

"It does seem like he's got a magnet on him, for sure," said Pittsburgh batting coach Jeff Branson, with a bewildered smile, after seeing another Grapefruit League pitch bounce off Marte's left hand.

Marte had taken a pitch on the same hand in his second game with Escogido. He returned a few days later, only to tweak his back. He came back from that in another few days and strained a groin muscle.

That was about the time the Pirates said, "No mas," and asked Marte to stay home.

He complied, although he probably wasn't thrilled with it. A fabulous 2012-13 Dominican Winter League season had set the stage for his tremendous April, when he established himself as a leadoff weapon by batting .327 with an on-base percentage pushing .400. So while Marte came into this Spring Training better rested, he also felt less sharp. And two hits in his first 17 spring at-bats backed that suspicion.

But the Bucs wanted to keep him in one piece, which can be a full-time job. When Marte returned in mid-September from a three-week absence with a bruised right hand, head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk came up with a so-called "oven mitt" for him to wear on the hand when on the bases. Maybe Tomczyk should provide a plastic bubble for Marte to play in all the time.

Marte can't change the aggressive, all-out way he plays the game, which contributes to the dings and costs him a few calibers as a leadoff man. Some leadoff men, especially in the first inning, take as many pitches as possible to get an extended look at that day's opposing starting pitcher, perhaps in the process draw a walk to jump-start the offense.

That's not Marte. In the 119 games he led off last season, he drew five walks. In his young career, he has drawn a total of 31 unintentional walks in 748 plate appearances.

"I'm working on it," Marte said of finding a little more patience. "I am an aggressive hitter. But I'll do my best to get more bases on balls."

Marte partly makes up for it by doing other atypical leadoff things. Extra-base power, for one. His 26 doubles, 10 triples and 12 homers last season made him the Pirates' second triple-double man in 21 years (Jack Wilson, 2004).

"He gives us a dynamic presence atop the lineup no one else can match," manager Clint Hurdle said.

Marte also makes up for it by getting hit with pitches. It's a pretty amazing set of numbers: Compared to those 31 unintentional walks, he has been hit by pitches 27 times.

Of course, bases on balls are painless.

It is a much smaller sample size, obviously, but this spring Marte has yet to walk and has been hit by pitches twice even though "he has made an adjustment off the plate," said Branson, who intends to find a way to help Marte shed the bull's-eye.

"He's moved off the plate a little bit," Branson said, "but [pitchers] are still coming after him. The knock on [Marte] is he'll chase in [swing at inside pitches], so they're still coming in on him, to see how far they can go."

"It's part of the game," Marte said with a shrug. "Anybody can get mad, but it's all fine, because I never get the feeling it's on purpose. If I ever felt that somebody hit me on purpose, that'll be different."

Being hit with pitches appears to upset Marte less than being hit with questions about Gregory Polanco. No, not upset; that's probably too strong. But Marte, a kid of 25 himself, seems to have begun to resent being asked about looking forward to sharing an outfield with his countryman, all of three years younger.

"He's a young kid with a lot of tools, so it'll be good," Marte said, adding significantly, "like having [Jose] Tabata in right field."

Polanco has already caught up with Marte in one regard: He was the most recent Dominican Winter League season's golden child, as both the league's Rookie of the Year and MVP.

However, Marte will still be the catalyst in Pittsburgh.

"I just want to improve what I did last year," he said. "Do much better, stay more focused on my game. The main thing is to help the team win games."

No left fielder was better at that last season. Marte did not win the National League Gold Glove Award for left field -- which he has pledged to take away from Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies -- but he won something certainly more meaningful. Metrics say he saved 20 defensive runs, the best rating among all Major League left fielders.

So when the blackboard in Charlotte Sports Park on Saturday listed the Pirates' leadoff batter for the game against the Rays as "Sterling Marte," it perhaps wasn't a typo.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Starling Marte