This is Joe Sheehan’s’s third piece as part of his April residency at FanGraphs. A founding member of Baseball Prospectus, Joe currently publishes an eponymous Baseball Newsletter. You can find him on Twitter, as well. Read all our residency posts here.
Starling Marte has been suspended 80 games for a first violation of the Joint Drug Agreement. Per MLB, Marte tested positive for Nandrolone. He accepted the suspension, calling his actions “a mistake” without denying responsibility for the positive test. Marte will be eligible to return on July 18, when the Pirates play their 94th game of the season at home against the Brewers. Per the latest changes to the JDA, Marte will also be ineligible for the 2017 postseason.
This is a blow for a Pirates team that needed everything to go right to challenge for a playoff berth. Already playing without infielder Jung Ho Kang, whose DUI violations have left him unable to secure a visa, the loss of Marte for 80 games projects to something like a two-win hit for a team that didn’t have two wins to spare. The Pirates have moved Andrew McCutchen back to center field to cover for Marte, and Marte’s playing time will fall mostly to Adam Frazier, off to a .295/.354/.455 start while playing five positions. Jose Osuna and John Jaso should get some extra PAs in Marte’s stead as well.
On the horizon is Austin Meadows, the No. 5 prospect in baseball according to Eric Longenhagen and No. 7 prospect according to MLB.com. Meadows, though, is off to a .146/.217/.244 start at Triple-A, running his line at that level across two seasons and 191 PA to .198/.277/.407. Meadows’s prospect status is intact; it’s just not likely that he’ll be ready for the majors before Marte can return.
Since the penalties for failing tests were increased in 2015, in the wake of the not-shady-at-all Biogenesis “investigation,” 14 players have been suspended 16 times under the MLB regime. (Jenrry Mejia, the Mets relief pitcher, was dinged three times in 10 months and is serving a lifetime ban.) Half of those are pitchers, and the other half have combined for 270 home runs in more than 10,000 plate appearances, 159 of those homers by Marlon Byrd. I mention this because it’s important to remember that Starling Marte’s suspension is result of home runs. Every single suspended player over the last 13 years owes his punishment to home runs: home runs none of them hit, home runs that were misunderstood in the moment and remain poorly understood today, home runs that were nevertheless used as a pretense for an elaborate campaign that assumes all players cheat and forces them to prove otherwise.
MLB expanded by two teams in 1993, adding the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies. Offense jumped, as it always does in expansion years, from 4.1 runs per team-game to 4.6, helped by 81 games in the thin air of Denver. The strike years of 1994-95 saw an average of 4.9 runs per team-game, then 5.0 in 1996 before a dip to 4.8 in 1997. At that moment, it seemed as if the expansion effect was washing out of the player pool.