Starling Marte’s PED mistake will linger much longer than his 80-game suspension

Why did he do it?

That is my biggest question surrounding Starling Marte’s 80-game suspension for testing positive for Nandrolone, even bigger than, “The Pirates want Andrew McCutchen back in center field? Really?”

Marte, 28, was not playing for a contract — he is in the fourth year of a six-year, $31 million deal that could extend to eight years, $55 million through 2021 thanks to two club options.

As far as anyone knows, Marte also was not coming off a significant injury; he played only six games after Sept. 1 last season due to lower back stiffness and had a minor ankle issue during the World Baseball Classic, but neither condition was considered serious.

So, was Marte simply trying to achieve a greater level of stardom and perhaps additional income through endorsements? Or was he a regular user of banned substances who finally got caught under baseball’s drug-testing program?

Marte’s statement, issued through the players’ union, naturally offered no answers. He said that his “mistake” was rooted in “neglect and lack of knowledge,” but that is no excuse in this era, not when players repeatedly are warned to check everything they put into their bodies. He also asked forgiveness for “unintentionally disrespecting so many people who have trusted in my work,” as if this was one big accident.

Heck, maybe it was. Maybe Marte committed a one-time transgression, however unlikely it appears. But if you’re the Pirates, you’ve got to be terrified your best player’s use of a performance enhancer was the continuation of a pattern, that he is partly a creation of PEDs and might not be the same after he returns.

I don’t want to over-dramatize this; Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz and Alex Rodriguez, for one season at least, are among the players who resumed their normal level of production after PED suspensions. But the Pirates suddenly have reason to doubt Marte when presumably they did not have reason before.

Before Tuesday’s news, Marte was viewed as an electric talent, so gifted and athletic that the Pirates installed him in center field this season at the expense of McCutchen, their franchise player. McCutchen’s poor defensive metrics more than justified the decision — his negative-28 in defensive runs saved last season was the worst in the majors — but that didn’t make the call any easier politically.

A trade of McCutchen would have enabled the Pirates to escape the awkward staredown, but the team failed in its efforts to move him. In the end, McCutchen alone brought dignity to the matter, posting a photo of the late Pirates Hall of Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente on Twitter as a way of demonstrating that he endorsed the move.

Some might view McCutchen as getting the last laugh now that the Pirates will move him back to center, but none of this is funny, not at all. Top prospect Austin Meadows, currently at Triple A, almost certainly will take over in center once the Pirates deem him ready. And McCutchen is more likely than ever to get traded, because the Pirates are unlikely to contend.

The Pirates, as a low-revenue team, needed everything to go right this season. The resurgence of ace right-hander Gerrit Cole. The emergence of youngsters such as righties Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow and first baseman Josh Bell. The expected performance from veterans such as Marte and third baseman Jung Ho Kang.

Now Marte is out until July while Kang remains in Korea, denied a work visa due to his legal troubles. The Pirates will carry on; maybe someone like infielder/outfielder Adam Frazier will prove a surprise contributor, maybe David Freese will remain a worthy replacement for Kang. But let’s not sugarcoat this: The Pirates will not be as good without Marte, and they never wanted McCutchen in center field.

It’s one big mess, the baseball equivalent of a man cheating on his wife and watching his family crumble. Marte was the cheater. And now his team, a proud, resilient bunch, will try desperately to remain strong without him.

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Surrounded by reporters at his locker looking for a reaction to Tuesday's steroid bust, Anthony Rizzo flipped the question around: Why wouldn't Starling Marte take the risk?

The Pittsburgh Pirates already handed Marte a six-year, $31 million contract before Opening Day 2014, plus two club options that could make the deal worth $53 million for the All-Star/Gold Glove outfielder. Major League Baseball suspending Marte for 80 games after testing positive for nandrolone will cost him roughly $2.5 million and the chance to play in the postseason this year. 

That doesn't sound like much of a deterrent to Rizzo, one of the faces of the world champion Cubs and a star player willing to speak his mind on certain issues.

"Is it a big risk if you're suspended 80 games and you got a guaranteed contract?" Rizzo said. "Do you take that risk to get the reward? That's the question you ask. For some guys, it is a big risk, for others, you get away with it, you get the big deal. But it's part of the game. And my opinion is we need to drug test a lot more."

Standing in the Wrigley Field clubhouse before a night game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Rizzo said he hasn't been screened since the initial round of testing in spring training.

"Me, personally, I haven't been tested since the season started," Rizzo said. "It's been a solid two months now. It's a random drug test and I'll probably be drug-tested a week from now, because I'm saying this. But for me, it's 15 minutes. We should be getting drug-tested a lot more."

Marte – who hit .311, stole 47 bases and won a second Gold Glove last season to bump Andrew McCutchen out of center field – homered off Jake Arrieta during Pittsburgh's weekend sweep in Wrigleyville.

"I don't look in the rearview mirror," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "Yeah, you could go backward and get upset about moments like that. If they had done this sooner, would it have made a difference? I really don't know, so I don't live that way."

After dangling McCutchen in offseason trade talks, the Pirates pulled back a proud franchise player, while power-hitting infielder Jung Ho Kang is still dealing with the legal fallout from multiple drunk-driving incidents in South Korea. Marte's suspension leaves a small-market team trying to catch the Cubs with almost no margin for error.

"Is it perfect?" Maddon said. "Probably not, but I also believe when something like this occurs, as we continue to move forward, whatever is falling through the cracks eventually will not anymore.

"In some ways, it's unfortunate for Pittsburgh. That really is devastating to the entire group, not just the individual himself. It's really a tough moment to be in.

"(But) it appears that the system is working. (And) if it's not 100 percent working, at least it's trending in the right direction."

Rizzo is also realistic enough to understand that kind of hit rate won't happen in what's become a booming $10 billion (and counting) industry.

"Any system that's in place, you're going to have people trying to beat it," Rizzo said. "No matter what you do for a living, people are going to try to beat the system. It's no different here. If there are loopholes, guys know about them.

"(Marte) happened to get caught, but for sure there are other guys that are doing something very similar, because to get caught with something that aggressive in his system, there's obviously something wrong."

Rizzo also sounded disappointed on a different level. At the age of 28, Marte should be in the prime of his career, a worthy rival for the defending World Series champs. But now one of the more dynamic players in the game looks like a fraud.

"I personally love playing against Starling Marte," Rizzo said. "Every time he gets on first, I like talking to him. We mess around a lot in-game. And then something like this comes along, it's just like: 'Man, anybody could be doing it.' It's unfortunate."

Starling Marte's suspension leaves gap in Pirates roster

ST. LOUIS -- One veteran scout who attended Tuesday night's Pittsburgh Pirates game in St. Louis described the blow of losing Starling Marte for 80 games.

"Kills them," he said.

Asked to elaborate, he didn't exactly make things sound any less debilitating for the Pirates after their rightful center fielder and most valuable player got hit with a suspension for using the performance-enhancing drug Nandrolone.

"It's not good," he said. "It hurts them defensively. It hurts their power. It hurts their speed. He's the best athlete on the team."

It's hard to overestimate the impact, psychologically and otherwise, of losing a player like Marte, midstream, for a reason other than injury. So, the Pirates didn't underestimate it. They copped to the pain it will inflict. Their clubhouse was quiet before the game, and it was quieter still after a 2-1 loss to the Cardinals Tuesday night.

"It's hard to lose a player like that for 80 games," Gregory Polanco said after the game. "You know the impact Marte made on us. You have to play, you know. This is our job. We have to go through this, and you have try not to think about it during the game."

That's easier said than done, apparently. The news seemed to hit the Pirates' momentum like a grenade, stopping it dead in its tracks. They came into this series off a rousing sweep of the world-champion Cubs at Wrigley Field to play a 3-9 Cardinals team that wasn't doing many things right.

In the first two games in St. Louis, against midrotation pitchers Lance Lynn and Mike Leake, the Pirates scored a total of one run, losing both games. They looked as lifeless as can be. This is the kind of news that can send a team sinking to the depths immediately.

Three pitches into Tuesday's game, the Pirates felt the sting of losing their most dynamic defender. Adam Frazier, playing right field because of Marte's absence, kicked a ball that ricocheted off the wall, turning a Dexter Fowler double into a triple. Fowler scored on Stephen Piscotty's checked-swing dribbler that may as well have been a squeeze-play bunt. In other words, the margin of defeat wouldn't have existed, most likely, had Marte been in center and Andrew McCutchen in right.

Going into this season, the Pirates shuffled their outfield defense out of desperation. Last year, they converted only 88.6 percent of fly balls into outs, the second-worst mark in the National League.

Asked how losing his most athletic outfielder would impact his team's ability to catch the ball, manager Clint Hurdle said before the game, “I'm not even going to go there.”

McCutchen's defensive liabilities in center, which forced a difficult conversation for Hurdle in spring training, must have been a sore subject by Tuesday. Hurdle did, however, “go there,” eventually.

“We're going to put people out there. We're going to man every position. Time will tell,” Hurdle said. “There have been situations where, on paper, things look a certain way. The beautiful thing about this is the people that analyze the game and the people who write about the game and the people who work the game, things happen. You don't have answers for them until you put men out there and give them the opportunity to play, and that's what I'm looking forward to.”

Then again, one year doesn't always predict the next. Maybe McCutchen had such bad defensive numbers last season (worst center fielder in the league by DRS) because he was hurt and not letting on. He looks like he still has the ability to play a good center field. Playing shallow with Leake, a 160-pound pitcher, up in the third inning, McCutchen ran 98 feet to catch a deep drive into the right-center-field gap.

According to Statcast, Leake's drive would have been caught 63 percent of the time. That made it a decent, if not spectacular, play, but one a significant number of center fielders wouldn't have made, maybe even McCutchen last year.

After the running catch, TV cameras caught McCutchen demonstrably saying something that appeared to be, “This is my spot!” and pointing to the ground.

McCutchen also made a nice play to cut off Greg Garcia's double in the fifth inning, getting the ball to relay man Josh Harrison, who threw out Garcia at third.

“He's played there before and he looked good out there tonight. He looked very good out there tonight,” Hurdle said. “I didn't anticipate him not looking good out there tonight.”

The Pirates are increasingly swimming in shark-infested waters in the NL Central. The Cubs, now that they won the World Series and built a system that could dominate for a decade, are no longer cuddly.

And the Cardinals, with a $1 billion TV deal kicking in next season, are intent on bridging the gap as quickly as possible. The Cardinals spent $110 million signing free agents Fowler and Brett Cecil over the winter, then followed that up with $144 million worth of extensions for homegrown players Yadier Molina, Carlos Martinez and Piscotty. They blew through their international spending limits in the last period, signing five Latin American players to bonuses of at least $1 million.

It's a neighborhood the Pirates have survived in well the past few seasons despite a sub-$100 million payroll. They actually trimmed $8 million from the payroll over the winter despite reportedly making $51 million in profit last year. Losing two of your best three players for off-the-field reasons just might take the fight out of them, for a while, too. Third baseman Jung Ho Kang, the third-most valuable Pirate by Baseball Reference WAR (Marte was first) is in South Korea, denied a work visa because of a third DUI conviction.

Marte has been the Pirates' most valuable player since 2015, with 7.5 fWAR since then. Pirates GM Neal Huntington tried to say the right things -- that the Pirates have the depth to fill in, that guys will continue to play hard, but you could hear an air of desperation when he discussed the blow to his small-market team.

“We've got two next-man-up opportunities with off-field activities impacting what we're trying to do on the field,” Huntington said, “but we're going to come back to that organizational depth. This is what you prepare for.”

Can you ever truly prepare for something like this?

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