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Marte Gets Another Chance

The Pittsburgh Pirates unleashed a flurry of roster moves over the past two weeks. First, on November 19th, they designated Zach Duke, Andy LaRoche, and Delwyn Young for assignment, which we covered here and here. Yesterday, the Pirates filled these roster spots with Fernando Nieve, Dusty Brown, and the most interesting player of the trio, Andy Marte.

Marte might not have been a “can’t miss” prospect, but if he wasn’t, he was close. Baseball America listed him as the #40 top minor league prospect in 2003, and he swiftly climbed the list. In merely a year, he hit #11 before peaking at #9 in 2005 and coming in at a still respectable #14 in 2006. Marte was poised to become a star 3B, but his opportunity certainly wouldn’t come in front of Chipper Jones in Atlanta. Out of necessity, Marte was dealt, first to Boston (for Edgar Renteria) and then to Cleveland (in the Coco Crisp deal).

It was all downhill from there. Marte hasn’t hit in the Majors at all and, even in the minors, his patience deserted him, resulting in subpar OBPs. The power was still there, though. Marte slugged 31 HRs in just under 800 PAs between ’06 and ’07. As a result, it was somewhat believable that Marte had finally returned to form in 2009. In 326 AAA PAs, the former stud prospect hit like a stud prospect again, posting a .327/.369/.593 triple slash and earning yet another callup to the majors. Although his most recent stint (which ran through 2010) wasn’t as disastrous at the plate as his previous ones, his 81 wRC+ reinforced the fact that Marte isn’t the hitter who was once a top 10 prospect.

Good hitters certainly don’t post 81 wRC+ marks, but it’s possible for legitimate MLB players. They have to be good defenders to do so, but Marte should be able to fit that bill at third base, as Erik Manning reminded us last year.

His minor league equivalent is .287/.313/.458, definitely not the superstar level, but the Indians will take it, especially taking into account that Marte is regarded as being one of the better defenders in the minors, so much so, he was voted by minor league managers and coaches as the International League’s best defensive third baseman three years in a row (’05-’07). His Total Zone numbers match the scouting reports; in those 301 games, Marte has been worth +31 runs.

Despite this decent defensive reputation, Marte was still nearly a full win under replacement level in both 2009 and 2010. His poor UZR of -8 over that period influences that quite a bit, but only enough to bring Marte back to replacement level were he an average fielder. The problem appears to be teams’ insistence on playing him at first base. Unless Marte’s defensive reputation has changed dramatically, there’s no reason that he shouldn’t be playing third base. If he’s no longer regarded as a serviceable third baseman, he probably shouldn’t be in the major leagues; a 300 PA sample from AAA in 2009 was the only data which suggested Marte’s bat could play at first. Despite this, Marte received 58 of his 154 starts at first base in 2009 and 2010 and played the position poorly according to all of the advanced metrics here, severely limiting his value.

With the aforementioned Andy LaRoche out in Pittsburgh, Marte could find a chance at third base (depending on Pedro Alvarez’s positional future, which looks more and more like first base). If he hits like he did in his last two seasons with Cleveland and fields at even an average level, he’ll be at least a marginally productive major leaguer, with upside at both the plate and in the field. For Pittsburgh, it’s worth a flyer to try and find just one bit of that lost potential. For Marte, it’s another chance in what should be a favorable environment. At 27, Marte has to make the most of this one. Top prospect status can lose its luster quite quickly, and at this point, every chance could be his last.