Now the Pirates’ longest-tenured player, Starling Marte evolving as a veteran | TribLIVE.com
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Chris Adamski
Pirates center fielder Starling Marte celebrates after driving in a run during the fourth inning against the Marlins Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, at PNC Park.

Hard to believe it for the one-time manchild who homered on the first major-league pitch he saw, but Starling Marte is now 30.

Long playing in the shadows of veterans and stars such as Andrew McCutchen, Marte suddenly is one of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ oldest players. Still arguably the team’s best athlete, though, has Marte reached the stage of his career in which he’s one of its leaders?

Among those on the 40-man roster, only Francisco Cervelli and Jung Ho Kang are more than two weeks older than Marte (Lonnie Chisenhall was born 5 days before him in the fall of 1988; Chris Archer 8 days prior to that). Only Cervelli, Chisenhall and Jordan Lyles have more major-league seasons to their credit.

The kicker: the departures of Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison leave Marte as the longest-tenured Pirate; his memorable MLB debut July 26, 2012, in Houston pre-dates Gregory Polanco’s Pirates debut by about 22 1/2 months. Even Marte’s first pro contract, inked as a 16-year-old in 2007, came two years before Elias Diaz joined the organization.

Coming off a season in which he reached the 20-homer plateau for the first time but was wildly inconsistent, do the Pirates need Marte to become a more steady and reliable presence in 2019?

“Surely,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He’s 30 years old.”

Though his season wasn’t perfect – his .327 on-base percentage was his worst since 2012, his 14 times caught stealing led the majors, etc. — it was good enough Marte in 2018 was named the winner of the Roberto Clemente Award, given by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America to the Pirates’ MVP.

What makes Marte’s .787 OPS and 3.7 Wins Above Replacement more notable is that he did it after a season in which he served an 80-game suspension for violating the MLB policy on performance-enhancing substances. He also did it during a year in which he was the full-time centerfielder for a full season in the majors for the first time.

“We were able to get him through the disappointment of the suspension, we were able to get him a full season to play in centerfield and the freedom that comes with that,” Hurdle said. “When he shrinks his strike zone, he’s a whole different hitter, and I do believe that hitters and players and people, there’s certain clock where it’s time to have mature at bats. You’ve seen him hit some balls, when he hits them, they are no-doubters. And to have that consistent swing in play, to know what his hitting zone is as well and get his swing off with regularity and dependability, he can definitely add to the power.”

Marte strives for a consistency that has often eluded him in his career. Look, for example, at his roller-coaster 2018 by month: after a .946 OPS in May, it was .568 in June, 1.006 in July, .652 in August and .811 in September.

“This year I am going to continue to do my job more consistently and help the team more,” Marte said Saturday at PNC Park during PiratesFest.

Statistically on offense, Marte seemed to trade getting on base for power last season, posting the best slugging percentage (.460) of his career. But as one of the league’s fastest players, there’s reason to question that tradeoff.

“I lost a little bit getting on base, but it’s a game,” Marte said. “Sometimes we get on base a lot but other times can’t. This year I’ll try to do something different to get on base as much as I can.”

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Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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