Starling Marte’s PED mistake will linger much longer than his 80-game suspension

Why did he do it?

That is my biggest question surrounding Starling Marte’s 80-game suspension for testing positive for Nandrolone, even bigger than, “The Pirates want Andrew McCutchen back in center field? Really?”

Marte, 28, was not playing for a contract — he is in the fourth year of a six-year, $31 million deal that could extend to eight years, $55 million through 2021 thanks to two club options.

As far as anyone knows, Marte also was not coming off a significant injury; he played only six games after Sept. 1 last season due to lower back stiffness and had a minor ankle issue during the World Baseball Classic, but neither condition was considered serious.

So, was Marte simply trying to achieve a greater level of stardom and perhaps additional income through endorsements? Or was he a regular user of banned substances who finally got caught under baseball’s drug-testing program?

Marte’s statement, issued through the players’ union, naturally offered no answers. He said that his “mistake” was rooted in “neglect and lack of knowledge,” but that is no excuse in this era, not when players repeatedly are warned to check everything they put into their bodies. He also asked forgiveness for “unintentionally disrespecting so many people who have trusted in my work,” as if this was one big accident.

Heck, maybe it was. Maybe Marte committed a one-time transgression, however unlikely it appears. But if you’re the Pirates, you’ve got to be terrified your best player’s use of a performance enhancer was the continuation of a pattern, that he is partly a creation of PEDs and might not be the same after he returns.

I don’t want to over-dramatize this; Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz and Alex Rodriguez, for one season at least, are among the players who resumed their normal level of production after PED suspensions. But the Pirates suddenly have reason to doubt Marte when presumably they did not have reason before.

Before Tuesday’s news, Marte was viewed as an electric talent, so gifted and athletic that the Pirates installed him in center field this season at the expense of McCutchen, their franchise player. McCutchen’s poor defensive metrics more than justified the decision — his negative-28 in defensive runs saved last season was the worst in the majors — but that didn’t make the call any easier politically.

A trade of McCutchen would have enabled the Pirates to escape the awkward staredown, but the team failed in its efforts to move him. In the end, McCutchen alone brought dignity to the matter, posting a photo of the late Pirates Hall of Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente on Twitter as a way of demonstrating that he endorsed the move.

Some might view McCutchen as getting the last laugh now that the Pirates will move him back to center, but none of this is funny, not at all. Top prospect Austin Meadows, currently at Triple A, almost certainly will take over in center once the Pirates deem him ready. And McCutchen is more likely than ever to get traded, because the Pirates are unlikely to contend.

The Pirates, as a low-revenue team, needed everything to go right this season. The resurgence of ace right-hander Gerrit Cole. The emergence of youngsters such as righties Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow and first baseman Josh Bell. The expected performance from veterans such as Marte and third baseman Jung Ho Kang.

Now Marte is out until July while Kang remains in Korea, denied a work visa due to his legal troubles. The Pirates will carry on; maybe someone like infielder/outfielder Adam Frazier will prove a surprise contributor, maybe David Freese will remain a worthy replacement for Kang. But let’s not sugarcoat this: The Pirates will not be as good without Marte, and they never wanted McCutchen in center field.

It’s one big mess, the baseball equivalent of a man cheating on his wife and watching his family crumble. Marte was the cheater. And now his team, a proud, resilient bunch, will try desperately to remain strong without him.

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