Can the Pittsburgh Pirates Survive Losing Starling Marte?

Is it possible for the Pittsburgh Pirates to contend for a playoff spot with outfielder Starling Marte missing 80 games because of a PED suspension?

In a shocking blow to Pittsburgh Pirates fans, star center fielder Starling Marte was suspended 80 games for PED use on Tuesday. He was suspended for testing positive for nandrolone and won’t be back with the team until around the All-Star break. He apologized to his teammates and fans, but gave no indication as to why he used the drug he was suspended for, saying, “Neglect and lack of knowledge have led me to this mistake, with the high price to pay of being away from the field that I enjoy and love so much.”

There’s plenty to be written about Marte testing positive for PEDs, but this article will focus on what happens with the Pirates going forward. This team preview in March assessed the outlook for the team before the season began. The bottom line was that the Pirates were a fringe Wild Card contender. The Cubs looked to be the easy winners of the NL Central and the Pirates were projected to win between 81-83 games and finish 3-6 games behind the Wild Card teams.

That projection was enough to give Pirates fans hope. Over a 162-game season, any team can make up a gap of a handful of games. If Andrew McCutchen were to rebound all the way back to the player he’d been previously and Gerrit Cole took a step forward and the team’s young pitchers (Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow) solidified themselves as good major league pitchers, they could get back to the playoffs.

Unfortunately, that article was posted on March 20. Before the season began, the Pirates learned they could be without Jung Ho Kang for the rest of the season after he received an eight-month suspended prison sentence for a third DUI in South Korea. (He has an appeals hearing in May.) Before the suspension, Kang was projected to be a 3.1 WAR player. If he were to miss the entire season, which now looks likely, suddenly the Pirates are looking much more like last year’s 78-win team and much less likely to snag a Wild Card spot. The FanGraphs projection for the Pirates went from 82-80 to 79-83 with the loss of Kang.

So, what about now? Marte was projected to be the team’s second best position player, after McCutchen. The FanGraphs Depth Charts had him projected for 3.2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), while McCutchen was projected to be a 3.6 WAR player. Basic math suggests losing Marte for 80 games will cost the Pirates 1.6 wins.

Of course, this assumes that Marte will be the same player he was projected to be when he returns from the suspension, which is not a given. Now that he’s been suspended for PED use once, we don’t really know how much of his production in the past was due to PED use. Was this a one time thing, or has he been using in the past and just hadn’t been caught yet? We don’t know.

Then there’s the move of McCutchen back to center field. He was moved to right field because he graded out terribly in center field last year. According to Baseball-Reference, he was worth -28 Defensive Runs Saved Above Average. In a small sample size of 13 games in right field this season, he’s at +1. In the first game after the suspension, McCutchen was back in center field. Unless he’s improved greatly from last year, his projected WAR will likely go down with the move to center.

Replacing Marte in the outfield on Tuesday was Adam Frazier. He’s a slightly better than replacement-level player. The team also called up Jose Osuna from the minor leagues. Osuna can play first base or the outfield but, like Frazier, he’s basically a replacement-level player. Unless something crazy happens, neither Frazier nor Osuna will be able to replace the value of Marte.

A third option would be outfielder Austin Meadows, who is one of the team’s top prospects. Meadows hit very well in Double-A last year (.311/.365/.611) but had some struggles in Triple-A (.214/.297/.460). He’s only 22 years old and the Pirates started him in Triple-A this year. With the Pirates’ playoff chances dwindling now that Kang and Marte are out, they are likely to prefer keeping Meadows down in the minor leagues rather than start his service time clock.

Losing Starling Marte is a significant hit to the Pirates. They were already looking like a long shot to make the playoffs and the hole just got a little bit deeper. An optimist could come up with some creative scenarios in which they contend, but a pessimist is likely to wonder if this will encourage the Pirates to punt 2017 and look to the future. It’s possible that losing Marte to a PED suspension could lead to Andrew McCutchen being traded.

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