Time and injuries had already robbed the Pirates of one center-field superstar, reducing Andrew McCutchen to the role of a corner outfielder who’s been a roughly league-average hitter over the past season-plus. Now a positive steroid test will also deprive the Pirates of the superstar who succeeded McCutchen in center, as news broke Tuesday that Starling Marte had tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone and, as a first-time abuser, would be suspended for 80 games under the terms of MLB’s collective bargaining agreement.
The impact of this suspension is tough to oversell: Marte might be the best player ever to test positive in the decade-plus history of MLB PED punishment, both in terms of expected rest-of-season production and ramifications for his club. Marte is a perennially strong response in the unanswerable, nebulous debate about the identity of the most underrated player in baseball. His 20.5 Baseball-Reference WAR since the start of 2013 (his first full season) ranks 12th among all position players, just behind Nolan Arenado and fellow underrated stud Kyle Seager and just ahead of better-known names Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto, and José Altuve. Marte isn’t obscure — he’s won back-to-back Gold Gloves, and he made the NL All-Star team last season. Then again, so did Aledmys Diaz; an All-Star appearance isn’t necessarily a sign that a player has gotten his due, and Marte was added to the team as a reserve after one-dimensional Red Adam Duvall, who had no track record of pre-2016 success, was already on the roster. Marte has been one of the best players in baseball for years, and he’s never sniffed an MVP vote, even at the back of a ballot.
Marte is underrated for the same reasons that many unsung stars of the past tended to be: He plays for a small-market team, he derives much of his value from defense, and he excels at almost everything rather than being the best in any one area. His Baseball-Reference page is almost devoid of black ink, but he has few weaknesses. Again since 2013, only four players — Andrelton Simmons, Arenado, Jason Heyward, and Manny Machado — have amassed more defensive runs saved than Marte, thanks to the outfielder’s great range and an arm whose value over the same span has been surpassed by only a different four players. Only three players have stolen more bases, and only seven have been better in overall baserunning value in that time.
A habit of swinging at pitches outside the strike zone — and a correspondingly low walk rate and less-than-eye-popping isolated power — has barred Marte from the peak of the pantheon, but he compensates by getting hit by pitches, something he’s done more often than any other player over the past four-plus seasons. At 28, he’s probably a finished product, although it’s not unusual for hitters to add power and become more selective swingers as they age out of their physical primes.
Even absent more discipline and pop, that product is the best player on a team that has only a slim hope of contending without him. The Pirates, who figured to be a bubble team in the neighborhood of .500, are off to a 6–7 start, and the one to two wins they can expect to lose without Marte manning center for the rest of the first half are especially costly to a team in its tenuous position. The latest FanGraphs projections, sans Marte, peg them for 79 wins on the season, one more than they had last year. Their playoff odds are down to 15.9 percent, and with the big, bad Cubs in the same division, almost all of that probability is tied up in the team’s chances of making what would be the franchise’s fourth NL wild-card game — or, as baseball writer Joe Sheehan has dubbed it, the Clint Hurdle Invitational. Even if the Pirates land that outside shot, they won’t have Marte’s services in the postseason, another consequence of his failed test.
Losing Marte could have a cascading effect that pushes the Pirates further from contention, making both a McCutchen trade and a call-up of the team’s top minor league prospect, Austin Meadows, more likely. The soon-to-be-22-year-old Meadows is off to a slow start at Triple-A, after hitting .214 with good power in his first exposure to the level last year. In the short term, the Pirates will probably compensate for Marte’s absence by sliding McCutchen back to center and mixing and matching with utility man Adam Frazier, the versatile Josh Harrison and Josh Bell, and outfielder José Osuna, who hit well in spring training and was recalled from Triple-A on Tuesday.
Surplus value extracted from modestly salaried stars is the fuel that propels low-payroll teams to the playoffs, and Marte, who would have earned $5.3 million this season if not for his suspension, remains a core piece of the Pirates’ future. Like McCutchen before him, he’s locked up to a team-friendly extension that will pay him just a tad more than $42 million over the next four seasons, including the 2020–21 team-option years.
On the PED-policing front, Marte’s is another name to add to the fairly long list of positive testers from the Dominican Republic, where the availability of steroids, the pressure to use sports as a springboard to financial security, and the lack of support systems that can help players pass tests contribute to more frequent suspensions. As a six-season major league veteran, though, Marte can’t convincingly claim ignorance as an excuse. As PED apologies go, Marte’s is pretty standard; he claims not to have taken the banned substance intentionally, but for an experienced player in 2017, "neglect and lack of knowledge" are no more excusable than a willful attempt to skirt the sport’s regulations.
It’s not uncommon for baseball’s big names to run afoul of the league’s PED policy, but many of the marquee players who’ve been suspended in the past were fading stars such as Miguel Tejada, Alex Rodriguez, and Manny Ramirez in 2011. Marte’s competition for the ignoble title of "best player to test positive" is probably limited to Ryan Braun in 2013 and Ramirez in 2009. Even among that trio, Marte might take top (dis)honors: Braun was in the midst of an injury-plagued year when his suspension started, and at 37, Manny — who still mashed — was an atrocious fielder and base runner.
At this late date, no one should be naive enough to think that baseball’s so-called "PED era" has completely come to a close — or, in light of the rewards awaiting any player who lands a large contract, that athletes won’t continue to seek edges and that the occasional steroid suspension won’t be a permanent part of every major sport. That unavoidable fact needn’t spoil our larger enjoyment of a time-honored pastime that’s always featured unscrupulous players. In this case, though, it has erased half a year from the career of one of baseball’s best players from both the statistician’s and the spectator’s perspective and, in the process, potentially sunk one team’s season.