Diamondbacks Add a Full-Time Center Fielder in Starling Marte

The Diamondbacks won 85 games last year despite getting very little production from their outfielders besides Ketel Marte. On Monday, they continued to address that issue by trading a pair of teenage prospects to the Pirates in exchange for two-time Gold Glove winner Starling Marte (no relation). The move gives the team the full-time center fielder it lacked in 2019, and allows them to protect their best player from overuse by returning him to second base — no small matter given that Ketel Marte ended his MVP-caliber season on the shelf due to a stress reaction in his back. The ensuing Marte Partay just might tear the roof off Chase Field, but whether the pair can provide similar production to what the team received from Ketel and Friends at the two positions is an open question.

Diamondbacks Receive

  • OF Starling Marte
  • $1.5 million

Pirates Receive

The 30-year-old Marte — we’re talking about Starling for the time being — had been part of the Pirates’ organization since signing with them out of the Dominican Republic in 2007. He debuted in the majors in 2012, and was the last remaining Pirate from the ’13 squad that broke the franchise’s 20-year postseason drought by earning an NL Wild Card berth. He’s coming off a strong season with the bat, one in which he hit .295/.342/.503 for a 119 wRC+, with 23 homers and 25 steals in 31 attempts; his slugging percentage and home run total both set career highs, while his wRC+ was his best mark since 2016.

His season did have some down notes in the form of injuries and defensive decline. He was limited to 132 games due to an abdominal wall contusion and right quadriceps bruise suffered in an April 19 collision with teammate Erik González, and then a left wrist sprain that prevented him from taking a single plate appearance after September 8. Meanwhile, his defensive work in center field took a tumble according to multiple defensive metrics; via UZR, he dipped from 3.2 runs above average in 2018 to 7.6 below average in ’19, while via DRS, he dropped from -1 to -11, and via StatCast, he fell from 10 Outs Above Average to 2.

Those defensive struggles limited Marte to a modest 3.0 WAR, but given the time missed, the value of the whole package he provided wasn’t appreciably different from his production from 2015-18, even though its shape has changed. He produced 12.0 WAR in 2,107 plate appearances in that span, which included a 111 wRC+, above-average defense in left field while Andrew McCutchen manned center, and an 80-game PED suspension in 2017; his work for that stretch prorates to 3.2 WAR across 586 plate appearances, his total in 2019. ZiPS is somewhat pessimistic he can keep it up to quite that level, though he should provide more than enough production to justify not only his 2020 salary ($11.5 million, of which Arizona is paying only $10 million) but also his ’21 club option ($12.5 million):

ZiPS Projections – Starling Marte
2020 .285 .332 .460 541 84 154 28 5 19 76 26 103 28 102 0 2.5
2021 .284 .331 .457 497 77 141 27 4 17 69 24 94 23 101 -1 2.1

That projection envisions positive regression for Marte’s defense but a significant dip in his offense; if he can maintain the extra power, which isn’t a given thanks to his groundball tendency (50.5% last year, matching his career mark) or his meager 87.4 mph average exit velocity (23rd percentile), he could be a three-win player again. On the subject of Statcast, note that his elite speed and ability to hit the ball hard with some regularity put him in the 96th percentile in terms of expected batting average (.304) and 80th percentile for expected slugging percentage (.511). He wasn’t doing it with mirrors.

The Diamondbacks plan for Marte to take over center field, with his namesake, who’s coming off a 7.1 WAR-breakout season, returning to second base, where he made just 45 starts after making 105 there in 2018. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, general manager Mike Hazen appeared resigned to the likelihood of a similar alignment to last year, when he was unable to come up with a suitable replacement for departed free agent A.J. Pollock. The stress reaction that knocked Ketel Marte out of action after September 17 was the result of overuse, and the extra running he did in center field, on Chase Field’s artificial turf, may have been a contributing factor.

Per our positional splits, Ketel Marte’s work as a center fielder, which covered about 60% of his playing time by plate appearances, accounted for 5.8 of the Diamondbacks outfielders’ 9.4 WAR, with David Peralta (1.5 WAR), Jarrod Dyson (1.2), and Tim Locastro (0.9) accounting for most of the rest. Peralta, who was limited to 99 games by right shoulder woes that culminated in September surgery to remove loose bodies, is set to return in left field, with former Angel Kole Calhoun, who signed a two-year, $16 million deal, taking over right field, where the team netted just 0.5 WAR thanks to Adam Jones‘ struggles. At the keystone, Ketel Marte should provide an upgrade on both sides of the ball relative to the work of fill-ins Wilmer Flores (now a free agent) and Eduardo Escobar (the incumbent at third base), but matching the 10.3 WAR Arizona received from his two main positions hinges on whether he can approach last year’s stellar performance. That’s a tall order.

As for the Pirates, Bryan Reynolds, who made 25 of his 122 starts in center field, may take over Marte’s vacated spot, though general manager Ben Cherington could pursue a free agent such as Cameron Maybin, Dyson, Juan Lagares, or Kevin Pillar to play center and leave Reynolds in left, with Gregory Polanco in right. Prospect Jared Oliva, who spent last year at Double-A, could get a look later in the year; 2018 first-round pick Travis Swaggerty, who spent last year in High-A, is the long-term candidate to take up residence there, but he’s at least a year away.

Of the two youngsters Pittsburgh acquired, Peguero is the higher-rated one, a 50 FV prospect who placed fifth on the team’s Top 47 Prospects list back in November. The just-turned-19-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, who spent last year in Low-A, was described by Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen as “a Jean Segura starter kit” less because of his build (at 6-foot-1, 160 pounds, he’s a taller version of Segura, with “sloped shoulders, short torso, and the high, thick butt and thighs”) than because of how quickly he gets his barrel into the zone. Strong in the hands and wrists, he’s already producing MLB-caliber exit velocities, though he’s groundball prone. He’s got a plus hit tool, and is a plus athlete, with the potential to be an above-average defender at shortstop thanks to above-average hands and arm strength.

Malone, who placed 10th on the Diamondbacks’ prospect list as a 45+ FV prospect in November, is a 6-foot-5, 210 pound power righty who was the 33rd overall pick in the June draft out of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. He’s got a plus fastball that sits 92-96 mph and has touched 99. His best breaking pitch is “a 55-grade slider that flashes 60 for some scouts and that he can dot anywhere,” according to our prospect team, and both his curve and changeup are about average. He has mid-rotation starter potential, but with just eight professional innings under his belt, it’ll be a long time before he has a shot to reach it.

The two prospects strengthen a Pirates system that already ranked ninth on THE BOARD last season, but it’s all about the waiting for the Bucs and their lack of bucks. They no longer have a single player who will make more than $9 million in 2020, and with an estimated payroll of just over $59 million, they appear content to provide something on par with last year’s 93-loss season, their worst showing since 2010.

Even with their remade outfield (and infield), the Diamondbacks — who most notably also added Madison Bumgarner this winter — don’t figure to overtake the Dodgers, but if things go right, they’ll be in contention for a Wild Card spot again, particularly in a division where the rebuilding Giants and the [squinting] whatever the hell they’re doing Rockies could be easy prey.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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2 years ago

So in case you are like me and have been wondering this whole offseason: “Why do they want to move Ketel Marte off of CF, since he was so awesome defensively there?” Well, I’ve been playing around with the Outs Above Average numbers. It appears that MLB teams own defensive analytics track really closely to OOA, which isn’t always an issue because it’s not that different from UZR/DRS but in this case it really is. OOA had Ketel Marte at -1% in catch percentage at both 2B and CF, so those UZR/150 numbers are looking pretty suspect. That said, Starling Marte also had a -1% catch percentage, so this move is still really about saving Ketel Marte’s body, where the defense comes out to about a wash.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Ketel Marte also voiced his displeasure with playing on the artificial turf after his season was ended, so the team definitely has the best interests in mind of their star player.