Starling Marte was supposed to be one of the bright spots for the Pittsburgh Pirates lineup this season.
Was. Past tense. Forget it now.
Marte was suspended Tuesday for 80 games after violating the league’s substance abuse policy, testing positive for Nandrolone, which is about as bad as it gets when it comes to steroid suspensions. You may remember Nandrolone making a cameo in the Roger Clemens steroid saga, which makes Marte’s statement, released by the team via translation, all the dumber.
“Neglect and lack of knowledge have led me to this mistake,” Marte said, “with the high price to pay of being away from the field that I enjoy so much. I ask for forgiveness for unintentionally disrespecting so many people who have trusted in my work and have supported me so much.”
Lack of knowledge? That seems implausible. This wasn’t an over-the-counter milkshake that had something unmarked inside. And who, pray tell, was Marte unintentionally disrespecting? Does that mean … let’s let Joel Sherman ask it:
It’s a fair question, and one Marte will have 80 some-odd days to figure out how to answer. Was the disrespect unintentional but the cheating on purpose, or is he laying the groundwork for appeal — in the court of public opinion, of course, as MLB doesn’t announce suspensions like this until all that’s done and dusted — saying he didn’t know what he was taking.
Nandrolone, as the internet will tell you, is an old-school, hardcore PED choice and not something you would possibly take accidentally. There are versions of anabolic steroids that can trigger a positive test for Nandrolone that are taken orally — Deca Durabolin being a common one — but when MLB puts in its release what drug led to the failed test, it seems clear this was the real deal, and there wasn’t some kind of confusion or masking agent involved.
So what now, for Marte and the Pirates?
Pirates president Frank Coonelly wrote in a statement, “The Pittsburgh Pirates fully support MLB’s Joint Drug Agreement, including the very tough penalties for violations of its prohibitions. We are disappointed that Starling put himself, his teammates and the organization in this position. We will continue to fight for the division title with the men who are here and will look forward to getting Starling back after the All-Star break.”
It’s hard to believe the Pirates had a realistic shot to stay relevant in the division with Marte anyway, but without him, it will be even tougher. By the All-Star break they could (read: will) be double-digit games back, (yes, even after the sweep of the Cubs in Chicago over the weekend) and can only hope to be in striking distance of a Wild Card spot by then.
Will the Pirates go from 6-7 to 6-87 in Marte’s absence? No, of course not, but this was to be his breakout year, and with Andrew McCutchen likely on the downside of his MVP-caliber seasons, the Bucs were planning to lean on Marte in the field and at the plate a lot during the first half of the season.
Who fills the void in center?
Marte wasn’t off to the hottest start this season — “I thought PEDs were supposed to help players!” someone is surely asking right now — but he was unquestionably one of the top outfielders in the National League, and the biggest reason the Pirates could think about trading McCutchen before opting to move him to the corner outfield spot.
So … will Cutch move back now?
That’s one option. The other is head to head to the farm and call up the other reason Cutch was almost dealt this off-season.
Austin Meadows is a consensus top-10 prospect in baseball, ranked sixth by Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America and 10th by MLB.com before this season began. He’s already moved up to seventh in the MLB minor league prospect rankings. From MLB.com:
The main reason Meadows has been able to move so quickly despite the interruptions has been his advanced approach at the plate and his innate ability to hit for average regardless of time away. He has a very smooth left-handed swing, one that has largely featured a hit-first approach, though the power started to show up a bit more in 2016. He draws walks and does not strike out a ton, though he struggled a bit in Triple-A for the first time.
Meadows’ reads and routes in center field have improved, and he should be an outstanding defender there with an accurate, albeit slightly below-average, arm. Part of the reason rumors spread about the Pirates’ willingness to trade Andrew McCutchen during the offseason was because Meadows is nearly ready. Room in Pittsburgh’s outfield will have to be made soon enough.
He has been injured several times in the minors, which is a concern long-term perhaps, but not now, where his skills may be needed immediately. That said, he’s hitting just .162 in 10 games so far this year at Triple-A Indianapolis, after hitting .214 in 37 games there last season, so expect his eyes to be extra wide if he is called up soon.
One other thing to consider: Service time. Meadows getting called up now starts his clock sooner than the Pirates had hoped.
The Pirates could move McCutchen back to center and go with Gregory Polanco and Adam Frazier in the corners, but that outfield isn’t probably isn’t contributing to a playoff run. And speaking of which:
PED suspensions are the worst.
Baseball is very hard on its drug offenders, mostly because people seem to care more about baseball players cheating than in other sports. And still, 80 games is a lot. In the NFL, this would likely be a four-game suspension, or 25 percent of the season. For MLB, it’s just about half the season; steep, but understandable given the sport’s maligned history with steroids.
According to Newsday’s MLB drug suspension database, this is the first suspension of the season in MLB for drugs, after just four in 2016. Miami Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon was popped for PEDs last year and missed 80 games the year after making back-to-back All-Star teams. He went from hitting .333 in 2015 to .268 in 79 games last season. Marte, a two-time Gold Glove winner and first-time All-Star last season, leaves after 13 games, batting .241 after hitting a career-best .311 last season. He was slated to earn $5.33 million this season.
Per Newsday, this is the first official suspension for PEDs for the Pirates. Ever. And for this year’s Bucs, it’s a big one.