Marte Suspended, Pirates Lose Remaining Margin for Error

Things were looking up for the Pirates. They’d emerged from the weekend with a sweep of the Cubs in Chicago. Jameson Taillon had pitched like a burgeoning ace. Ivan Nova had recorded more complete games than walks since joining the Pirates. The Cardinals and Cubs were scuffling. There was perhaps a sense that the Pirates’ final standing in the NL Central wasn’t predetermined.

And then they lost another star player for reasons unrelated to injury.

First it was Jung Ho Kang unable to gain entry to the country, denied a work visa due to his legal issues. And on Tuesday, MLB announced that Starling Marte has been suspended for 80 games due to a positive test for Nandrolone.

Marte issued a statement in which, like many of those who have tested positive for PEDs, he pleaded guilty ignorance and carelessness but not conscious skirting of the game’s PED policy.

Maybe he’s being truthful, but it’s probably fair to view the statement with a healthy does of skepticism.

We won’t see Marte again until after the All-Star break. Moreover, Marte won’t be eligible for the postseason should the club advance that dar. But advancing to the postseason now becomes considerably more difficult for a club with little margin for error.

Before Kang’s visa issue, the Pirates were projected to win 82 games. Now with Kang out indefinitely and Marte gone for 80 games, FanGraphs has the Pirates forecast as an 79-win club. That’s not a team certain to gain entrance to the postseason.

According to FanGraphs’ WAR, Marte has been the Pirates’ most valuable player since 2015, worth 7.5 WAR over that period. He’s been the club’s most consistent player the last four seasons, producing these WAR totals: 4.8 (2013), 4.3 (2014), 3.6 (2015), 4.0 (2016). We now project him to post 1.2 WAR in a partial season.

Replacing Kang with a full season’s worth of David Freese at-bats, the Pirates lost a couple projected wins. The scenario is similar moving from Marte to whomever the club will use as his substitute.

Part of why the Pirates were so good from 2013 to -15, when the club broke the longest streak of consecutive losing seasons in the history of major North American pro sports and advanced to three straight postseasons, is that they kept their stars on the field. Now, for reasons out of the club’s control, they will move forward for apparently much of the season without two of their projected top-three position players according to FanGraphs’ preseason projections.

Moreover, the club’s projected second-most valuable position player, Andrew McCutchen, is coming off an unprecedented age-29 decline. He was made very available during the offseason in the trade market. What to expect from McCutchen moving forward? He’s a wild card.

So what do the Pirates do moving forward?

It would seem that Adam Frazier, a promising young player, will receive everyday at-bats. While he’s perhaps best suited to play second base, where he perhaps could/should have pushed for Josh Harrison’s starting job in the first half, he will now likely spend most of his time in a corner-outfield spot. Frazier has excellent contact skills. But he’s not a four-win player like Marte. ZiPS projects Frazier as half-win player in 433 at-bats. While that might seem a bit cold on a player with a .303/.360/.427 slash line over the first 203 plate appearances of his career, Frazier has also line-drived at a 30% rate, which is probably not sustainable. Frazier is a nice player. He’s not Marte.

The Pirates recalled Jose Osuna on Tuesday, although he isn’t regarded as an eveyday replacement. He didn’t make Eric Longenhagen’s top-21 Pirates prospects, for example, and scouts believe he might be a Quad-A type.

What about top prospect Austin Meadows, you ask? One could argue that Meadows’ defensive aptitude should give him priority as a replacement in the spacious PNC Park outfield, but Meadows has struggled in 200 Triple-A plate appearances to date. And it’s unlikely the Pirates would consider Meadows until after the projected Super 2 cut-off safely passes. Moreover, Meadows has far less upper-level experience than Marte, McCutchen and Gregory Polanco had logged at the time of their arrivals.

The club could also carve out more time for John Jaso at first base and play the glove-challenged Josh Bell more often in right field. Which brings up the club’s other dilemma now — namely, how to align the outfield.

McCutchen was moved against his personal wishes to right field this spring to make way for Marte in center. Not only is Marte the club’s strongest outfielder but the Pirates wanted to hide McCutchen’s declining range and glove, which had fallen to an MLB-worst -28 Defensive Runs Saved in center last season. Manager Clint Hurdle has said he’ll move McCutchen to center, but he’s a liability there. Would Polanco be a better option? Will they consider Meadows for the role in June or later? And consider that the Pirates’ outfield, defensively, has not lived up to its reputation as noted by sabermetric-friendly Pittsburgh radio personality David Todd.

Wrote Todd:

There is a strong perception across baseball that the Pirates have a good defensive outfield because they have “three centerfielders” out there. This has existed for a couple years now. It’s not accurate. Statcast data shows the Pirates OFs don’t make many of the tough plays and in 2016 they were next-to-last in percentage of flyballs turned into outs at 88%. This year they are worse, 82% going into Monday’s game. Route efficiency doesn’t appear to be ideal for any of the three outfielders.

So a weakness now becomes weaker without a two-time Gold Glover for a staff less dependent on the ground ball.

The Pirates had little margin for error and are now without two players who, with full seasons of playing time, projected to combine for eight wins. However they’re replaced, the production will fall far short of that. Without Kang and Marte for significant portions of the seasons, it’s become more difficult to see a pathway for the club back to the postseason.

We hoped you liked reading Marte Suspended, Pirates Lose Remaining Margin for Error by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Marte must have thought that they would never test a Pirates’ hitter.