On the bus home tonight, a thought popped into my head. It flitted in and out pretty quickly, but it was definitely there.
"What if Starling Marte homers in his first at-bat?"
I didn't really have an answer, and I pushed the thought out pretty quickly. I always ask that when a player makes a debut, because it's such a cool thing to have a player homer in his first at-bat. It came back, though.
"Really, what if he homers? It's in Houston and Dallas Keuchel is a lefty and he's pretty bad and the Crawford Boxes are there and I dunno, it just kind of feels right, doesn't it?"
I got home and mostly put the thought out of my mind, though I was kind of restless in the leadup to 8:05. Around 7:40, I had a brief internet blip and was afraid I was going to have to hop in my car and drive to lab for Marte's debut. Things got straightened out, though, and I got the game on in time and it turns out that it's a good thing that I did, because Marte took Keuchel's first pitch and absolutely hammered it to left-center for the ultimate in lead-off home runs.
I can't even fathom how awesome it must be for someone like Starling Marte to hit a home run on the first pitch of his big league career; as I mentioned earlier today he started out as not even being signed in his first year of eligibility in the Dominican Republic and his career in America started late and was slowed down by an injury and suddenly he's in a big league uniform in the middle of a pennant race, living out all of his wildest dreams and at the culmination of that very moment, he hits a home run. I get chills just thinking about what it must've been like in his shoes tonight.
What I can tell you is this: just seeing it happen was an incredibly rewarding moment for me as a Pirate fan. Grant Brisbee wrote a great piece at SB Nation today about how Marte being called up is such a very different thing for Pirate fans because he's a reinforcement and not a dream ticket and it's all very true. In the past, when players like Andrew McCutchen or Pedro Alvarez made their debuts for the Pirates, their first games were big events because we as Pirate fans needed big events so that we could break free from being Pirate fans. We're all in a different place now; we know things are changing in Pittsburgh and Marte represents a different kind of hope. It's different because unlike the hope that McCutchen and Alvarez represented, this hope is tangible. If Starling Marte comes up and does in Pittsburgh what he's been doing in Indianapolis since June, the Pirates' lineup could be an absolute force to be reckoned with down the stretch and for a team that's already leading the wild card and within striking distance in the NL Central, that makes anything possible.
And so here this kid is, standing in the box with every minute of his life leading up to this very moment and all of Pittsburgh hanging on his at-bat because we all want to believe in this baseball team, and he hits a home run. I don't know what will happen with the Pirates over the rest of this season and I don't know how Starling Marte's career is going to play out from this point on, but I do know that his home run tonight is one of those moments of absolute magic that only baseball can produce and that nothing is taking that away from any of us.
After the first pitch, it was all a relatively straightforward Pirate win. Garrett Jones and Clint Barmes hit two run homers, AJ Burnett mostly cruised except for a rough spot in the eight inning when he served up two solo homers, and Joel Hanrahan closed out a roller-coaster save.
The Pirates are 14 games above .500. Sometimes, I just want to throw my hands up run around and yell, "It's all happening!" After nights like tonight, I can't help but think that it really might be.
On the bus home tonight, a thought popped into my head. It flitted in and out pretty quickly, but it was definitely there.
After nearly getting swept by the Cubs at PNC Park, the Pirates are in Houston tonight to take on the NL Central's other doormat. The Astros have lost nine games in a row and they've only won twice since June 28th. They are ridiculously bad right now and that badness is part of the reason that the Pirates are 2 1/2 games behind the Reds in the NL Central. Still, the Pirates are not nearly as good away from PNC Park as they are in it and they've already lost a series in Houston once this year. Now is not the time to coast.
Starling Marte makes his Pirate debut tonight, batting leadoff and playing left field. It's really been interesting to see all of his old minor league teammates wish him luck on Twitter this afternoon; almost to a man they mention how fun he is to watch play. AJ Burnett pitches against Dallas Keuchel. The first pitch is at 8:05.
Of all of the prospects that have come through the Pirates' system in the 7+ years that I've been writing WHYGAVS, there hasn't been anyone quite like Starling Marte. To begin with, he's the first home grown international prospect to make his big league debut since Jose Castillo (at least I'm pretty sure he is; I know Dejan Kovacevic said this at one point or another but I can't find it now). Castillo debuted in 2004, the year before WHYGAVS started. He's also been fun to watch develop. He didn't play in the US until he was 20 years old. When he was 21, he broke his hamate bone and didn't hit a home run other than a couple in a rehab stint in the GCL. He hit 12 home runs in Double-A last year and he's already got 12 in Triple-A this year and now he's 23 and playing for the Pirates. Any time a player moves through a system like that, making progress at each level and really developing, he's a guy you take notice of, someone you watch closely. It's always rewarding for fans when a player like Marte reaches the big leagues.
So who is Starling Marte? Before we even get to the player, we can deal with the story. Even without many details, you can tell that this is the sort of story that will be told in Sports Illustrated if Marte becomes a star. Marte was one of Rene Gayo's first signings for the Pirates in 2006, but he was already 17 years old at the time. That means that he went unsigned the year before, as a 16-year old. Because of his late signing date, he was slow to come to the US. He played in the Dominican Summer League as an 18-year old in 2007, and struggled. In 2008, he had a breakout in the DOSL (.296/.367/.455 with 10 doubles and nine homers in 65 games), but he was 19. That means he was a year older than most high school draftees and pretty old to still be playing outside of the US system. Some of Gayo's more recent signings, Alen Hanson and Willy Garcia and Jose Osuna, are all playing in West Virginia at the age of 19.
It became immediately apparent, though, that the Pirates thought highly of Marte. After his breakout season in the DOSL, he was mentioned specifically by Dejan Kovacevic in Part 2 of his series on the Pirates' efforts to rebuild their Latin American scouting efforts. At the end of that series, Kovacevic gave a list of the five prospects that Gayo liked the best; Marte topped the list even though he had just turned 20 and was yet to play at all in America. I remember Charlie Wilmoth (or maybe it was Wilbur Miller) noting at Bucs Dugout at the time that Gayo must really like Marte to put him that high on the list despite a relative lack of experience for his age.
Since then, Marte's been on a whirlwind through the system. Instead of playing in the GCL or New York Penn League in 2009, Marte hopped straight to West Virginia at mid-season and was impressive. He hit .312/.377/.439 in 54 games, with nine doubles, five triples, and three homers. That got him a promotion to Bradenton to start 2010, where he played well, but missed time due to the previously noted hamate injury. He finished 2010 with a .315/.386/.432 line with 16 doubles, five triples, and no homers in 60 games. When 2011 started, Marte was 22 and hadn't played more than 68 games in a season in America. The Pirates still sent him to Altoona, and he finally had a true breakout: .332/.370/.500 with an incredible 58 extra base hits (38 doubles, eight triples, 12 homers) over 129 games. You know the rest from here; he came to spring training this February, he destroyed the ball before his demotion, he went to Triple-A and had a bit of a slow start, and since June he's been mostly on fire. In 98 Triple-A games, he's got 21 doubles and 13 triples and 12 homers. Despite not playing a game in America before his 20th birthday, he's with the Pirates before his 24th.
The problem is that his late start and quick ascendance makes him pretty difficult to evaluate entirely. We know about the athleticism, we know about the speed, we know how his power is developing, and all of those things make him an incredibly promising prospect. But we also know that he's struck out 190 times in 999 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A and we know that he only drew 22 walks in 572 plate appearances last year and 28 in 427 this year. It's fair to expect plate patience to develop late for a player like Marte, but it's not something you can take for granted. It's entirely possible that he'll spend a bunch of time struggling with big league pitching and strike out a ton and put up Pedro Alvarez batting averages without Pedro's raw power for the forseeable future. It's also possible that he'll continue to not miss a beat and just keep killing the ball, because that's what he's done with every promotion up to this point.
That leads us to our big question: what can the Pirates' expect from Starling Marte? He's being called up to play in the heat of a pennant race. He plays a position that the Pirates certainly need help at. The thought of Marte covering as much of PNC Park's left field as the grass does, of him lasering throws in from right field, of him blasting extra base hits into the gaps and flying around the bases, of him batting .300 with a .340 OBP and setting the table for Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, all of these things are beyond tantalizing. It's easy to see what Marte's done in the minors and plug that into the Pirates and tell yourself that he's what could put the Pirates on another level in 2012. And he could; the ability, the talent, the potential is all there. That's not all guaranteed, though; he could hit .220/.250/.310 or worse, and that'd be worse than Alex Presley has been lately. There's a chance that right now he offers the Pirates precious little more than Gorkys Hernandez and really, there's just no way to find out other than putting Marte into the lineup and seeing what he does with big league pitching.
His potential, though, and the upgrade that his potential represents are both tangible. The Pirates are really in a pennant race, and even if 2012 isn't the year for the Pirates to go all-in, it's time to push some chips into the pot. If Marte comes up and doesn't miss a beat, there's no one else on the team or on the trade market that can do for the Pirates what he can do. I don't really know what Marte will do for the Pirates, but I know it's time to find out.
Just heard from a source that OF prospect Starling Marte will join the #pirates in Houston.— Kristy Robinson (@Kristy_Robinson) July 25, 2012
Good news. As I wrote last week, I think it's time to see what the kid can do. I'll write a little bit more about this later; I'm on my way out the door right now.
After losing two in a row against the Cubs and with Ryan Dempster on the mound, the Pirates were going to be happy with pretty much any sort of win to salvage the series against the Cubs this afternoon. As it happened, they got a pretty typical Pirate win to sneak a game out in this Cubs series and finish up their six-game homestand at 4-2.
It was a typical Pirate win because for the first five innings, the Pirates managed to answer every Cubs score with a solo home run. Neil Walker matched Anthony Rizzo's solo shot in the top of the first with one of his own in the bottom, then Mike McKenry hit a solo shot off of the left field foul pole in the bottom of the fifth to even the score at 2-2. In the sixth, Andrew McCutchen hit a two-out single on a 1-2 pitch to move Alex Presley into scoring position, then Garrett Jones doubled him home. Those three runs were enough, as Jared Hughes, Jason Grilli, and Joel Hanrahan did what they've been doing pretty much all season in slamming the door on the Cubs.
Kevin Correia also continued his recent run of strong starts, holding the Cubs to just two runs on four hits over his six innings of work. He struck out four hitters this afternoon, which gives him six, five, and four strikeouts (over 17 innings) in his last three starts. Prior to these three starts, he'd only hit the four-strikeout mark three times in his first 15 starts. We'll see how Clint Hurdle handles his rotation over the weekend once Wandy Rodriguez joins the team, but Correia's actually made a pretty decent case for himself lately.
What's important, of course, is that the Pirates snapped their mini-losing streak and got a win and that runs their record to 55-42, which is an awfully good place to be on July 25th, even if the team they're chasing seems like they've just decided to flat-out stop losing baseball games for now.
In 2010, the Pittsburgh Pirates were one of the worst baseball teams any of us can remember watching. They were bad at pretty literally everything imaginable. In early September, they managed to take two of three, including two in a row, from a contending Atlanta Braves team that still won the wild card. In 2011, the Pirates had one of the worst late-season collapses in recent baseball memory. They went from contender to Same Old Pirates in record time, dropping 43 of their last 62 games. In the midst of that free-fall, they took two of three from the Cardinals, including two in a row on August 15th and 16th. That didn't stop the Cardinals from winning the wild card and then the World Series.
The point is this: this is baseball. Bad teams beat good teams. They do it pretty often, actually. Sometimes, they do it twice in a row. It's not fun to be on this end of it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Two games is a pretty small, inconsequential sample in a 162 game season, though. Even with two straight losses to the Cubs, the Pirates are 2 1/2 back of the Reds and they're ahead of everyone in the wild card race. If they can find a way to win today, they still go 4-2 on this homestand, which is just fine.
Of course, a win today is not a given. Ryan Dempster, who has now vetoed his deal to the Braves because his feelings were hurt and because he wants to be a Dodger, is starting for the Cubs against Kevin Correia, who's probably pitching for his rotation life (and probably can't actually do anything to stay in after Erik Bedard's dominant start on Monday). That's not a great matchup for the Pirates, but then, the Pirates have won five of Correia's last six starts.
First pitch today is at 12:35.
We've got a tight turnaround time before today's 12:35 game, but I wanted to share some links to things people are writing about the Wandy Rodriguez trade.
Jay Jaffe likes the deal for the Pirates and digs into Wandy's lower strikeout rate this year, which is mostly due to him throwing more two-seam fastballs.
Baseball Prospectus generally likes the deal for the Pirates, too, with Kevin Goldstein giving some detail about the players the Pirates gave up and RJ Anderson discussing what trading for Wandy means for the Pirates.
Tim Williams isn't a huge fan of the deal, as he has some questions about how well Rodriguez can maintain his level of past performance going forward.
Tyler Kepner invokes the magic name that popped into a lot of Pirate fans' heads last night: Zane Smith.
Keith Law "loves" the trade for Houston.
I've had some more time to let this deal roll around in my head a bit and I still feel basically the same way about it that I did last night: I like the deal for the Pirates quite a bit. Rodriguez gives them a real mid-rotation starter both for this year and a year or two beyond (his option vests into a player option with the trade, so he's likely a Pirate through 2014). He's a good fit for PNC Park and while his strikeout rate has dropped a bit recently, his groundball rate has improved pretty steadily since 2008. His velocity isn't down, so I'm not quite as concerned about his strikeouts as I was initially. I'm not hugely taken with Locke or Wilson (or Owens, for that matter), and so I like the decision to add depth to the rotation here both for the present and future.
The Pirates are obviously taking some risk here by sending three decent prospects to Houston, but they also managed to make the deal without sending any of their best prospects away. It's worth noting that people have generally used Grossman's pre-season place in the system to discuss the deal, but since then, he's been passed by Alen Hanson and maybe even Gregory Polanco as hitting prospects. This is important to mention; Grossman's prospect status is about the same as it was pre-season, but his status in the organization has changed.
In any case, the Pirates are pretty clearly buyers here and while the price they're paying isn't necessarily cheap, like it was in the AJ Burnett or Derrek Lee trades, they're also getting more than just short-term value from the trade. Where things go from here should be interesting; I don't think Neal Huntington's quite done yet.
There are a lot of things to be discussed right now, but before we start discussing them we need to get the obvious thing out of the way: the Pirates traded for Wandy Rodriguez last night and they sent Rudy Owens, Robbie Grossman, and Colton Cain to the Astros in return.
There are some particulars that need hashed out: the Astros owe Rodriguez $13 million in 2013, when he'll be 34, and they have a $13 million team option ($2.5 million buyout) in 2014. On one hand, this means the Pirates aren't just picking up a two-month rental to help them in this particular playoff run. On the other, it means that Wandy is old and expensive. The good news is that the Astros are eating some cost in the deal; according to Dejan Kovacevic, the Pirates will pay Rodriguez $8.5 million this year and the option will be $7.5 million in 2014 (DK calls the option a player option instead of a team option, which is different from how Baseball Prospectus/Cot's has it listed; I'm honestly not sure which it is). That's expensive, but it's manageable.
With that out of the way, let's start with the Pirates' end of things. I don't think the Pirates' rotation is quite the strength right now that many others make it out to be; James McDonald is struggling after the break, Erik Bedard is constantly walking a fine line between effectiveness, disaster, and injury, AJ Burnett is old, I don't understand Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia has sold his soul for low-K-rate success, and not one of the three Indianapolis lefties (Owens, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson) impress me enough to think that they can help in a pennant race. There's talent there, for sure, but there's plenty of downside, too. Because of this, I've been constantly pricking my ears up at any rumor that attaches the Pirates to a pitcher: the obvious fix all year has been to add a slugger or a leadoff hitter, but that doesn't mean that the team couldn't be equally improved by adding a starting pitcher.
Still, I wasn't crazy about the idea of selling the farm for a rental, no matter how excellent (Hamels/Greinke), and the next tier down (Dempster) didn't seem that appealing to me given the likely price. I threw Rodriguez's name out in my trade deadline preview as a guy that made some sense to me; he's probably as talented as Dempster, but not nearly as over-valued and he's signed for longer. Since 2008, he's got a 2.74 K/BB ratio and 7.9 K/9 to go with his 3.45 ERA and he's mostly fixed the home run problem that haunted him early in his career and I don't see a velocity dip in 2012 even though his numbers are down a bit. Basically, he's Paul Maholm with a nasty curveball. That fits well in PNC Park, which is tough on right-handed hitters, and it helps stablize the Pirates' rotation a lot. Instead of wondering if Correia is going to implode and how Brad Lincoln will fare in the rotation in his place (or instead of him how Locke/Wilson/Owens adopt to the big leauges), the Pirates have a proven and consistent and pretty good big league starter to put in his place, and they'll have him at least through 2013, too, which is a good thing given Erik Bedard's pending free agency.
In return, the Pirates are giving the Astros some quantity, if not quality. Rudy Owens and Colton Cain are pretty similar prospects at different points of development; they're lefties with good control but without much in the way of swing-and-miss type stuff. Owens, in his bounceback season at Indianapolis this year, is only striking out 6.5 hitters per nine innings. Cain is 21 and in Advanced-A and only striking out 6.1 hitters per nine. Both of these guys could be serviceable big league pitchers, but the reality is that you want to see minor leaguers miss more bats than they do. Really, in my mind, they both were trending towards Zach Duke on the "Zach Duke <-------> Paul Maholm" scale of serviceable left-handed big leaguers.
That leaves Grossman. Really, Grossman's served as an interesting counterpoint to Starling Marte as the two of them have risen through the Pirates' system. Marte is basically all tools; he's tall and he's fast and he's lithe and the raw ability is clearly there for him to be a star baseball player, even though his strikeouts and his walks raise some big red flags. Grossman isn't built the same way as Marte, he doesn't play defense the same way, and even though he's taken some time to really develop, he's always drawn walks and he's consistently cutting down on his strikeouts and he's done all the things that make Major League players under-rated. Grossman's not a Major Leaguer, though, and so there's always been real questions about whether his power and speed and patience would develop into a big league regular. Compared to Marte he makes an interesting study, but he's just not the same type of prospect.
It's easy to sell these prospects short now that they're leaving town; this isn't really my intention. Grossman and Owens and Cain are among the Pirates' best prospects behind the Marte/Taillon/Cole/Heredia/Hanson/Polanco cluster. Three young players for a 33-year old will always be at least a little bit of a gamble. The thing is, there's a big gap between the Pirates' top tier of prospects and their second tier; these guys are almost certainly depth at best. Sometimes these sorts of deals for depth pan out far better than expected (Jeff Karstens), but lots of times, they don't. As a Pirate fan, I feel like I've spent much of my life waiting on guys like Owens and Grossman and Cain, only to see them fall short for any one of a hundred reasons.
That's really the heart of this deal; the Pirates got a pitcher in Wandy Rodriguez that will almost certainly make them better down the stretch this year and next year. They did so without giving up any of their top prospects and really, with Rodriguez in the fold, the depth that a pitcher like Owens provides is far less necessary. In short, the Pirates improved themselves and managed to minimize their risk. That's what the trade deadline is all about for a team in contention, right?
At about four o'clock this afternoon, a weird storm blew through Chapel Hill. There wasn't that much rain, but the rain that we did have was coming in sideways. We stood around in my lab marveling at the crazy winds for about five minutes, and then the power went out. Whenever the power goes out in a lab (or a lab building), the same thing always happens: at first people freak out a little bit, then everyone realizes that they've been in grad school for forever and one more day (or three more days to repeat the current experiment, or whatever) isn't going to make things worse or more prolonged than they already are. So we all sit around and laugh and figure out who has power and who doesn't, and then we go back to our lives.
Our power was back before 4:30, so I didn't think much about it. I finished up the work I had for the afternoon, got on the bus, and headed for home. On the way home, I realized that the crazy windstorm that hit us on campus was a bit more widespread than I'd realized, but I buried my head in my (digital) copy (that I couldn't actually bury my head in) of The Hall of Nearly Great and I didn't think about it. And then I got home and realized that my own power was out.
At this point, I had a few choices. I could sit in the darkness, read The Hall of Nearly Great until my iPad died, read comic books until my flashlight died, and go to bed. I could go to lab, watch baseball and do things that I was supposed to do days (weeks, months) ago and hope that my power came back when the Pirates game was over. Or I could go to the bar and celebrate with my friend that graduated and got offered a post doc position.
I chose option number three. What was I going to miss during a Pirates/Cubs game? At best, the Pirates win a game they should win and at worst, they lose again and everyone freaks out a little bit. The rumor milled seemed quiet and with the deadline a week away, I figured I was safe.
Wrong. First, the Pirates lost. That was vaguely unsettling given that they're playing the Cubs and the Reds are practically unbeatable right now and James McDonald has looked incredibly shaky since the All-Star break. But still, I pressed on. And then the words came across the ticker: SOURCE: PIRATES TRADE FOR ASTROS' WANDY RODRIGUEZ.
Now, by this point, I'd turned the mobile data off on my phone. When I got home after work, my battery was down around 30% and without power to charge it .. I mean, I'm running a year-old Droid Charge (that is, an LTE phone) on Gingerbread. I needed to stay in touch with a few people tonight via text message, and so the only option was to turn the mobile data off, just to be safe, except for a few seconds of score-checking and other various activities. And then the Pirates traded for Wandy Rodriguez just as my battery was entering the Danger Zone.
I've been blogging about the Pirates since 2005, and this sort of thing is pretty much a blogger's worst case scenario. As things stand, my power is still out, so I'm hanging out at a friends' house where there's a nice couch and air conditioning and an outlet to charge my phone up (this is my biggest concern; with a mostly-dead cellphone and no power for my alarm clock, there's no chance I'll be up before 11 AM tomorrow) and WiFi. And so now I'll begin digesting the trade, and hopefully I'll have a post up about Wandy within the next hour or at some point early tomorrow.