It is rare for an all-star-level player to get busted for performance-enhancing drug use in baseball. Whether because they have more to lose or — as a cynic might say — because they have, by virtue of their higher salaries, access to better scientists, there are few like Rafael Palmeiro or Alex Rodriguez among the steady stream of names nabbed by baseball’s drug-testing program.
But Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Starling Marte, who was suspended 80 games by Major League Baseball on Tuesday for steroid use, qualifies as a high-shock-value name. A two-time Gold Glove winner and a first-time all-star last season, Marte, 28, is in the prime of his career and signed a six-year, $31 million contract extension in March 2014. Had the Pirates followed through with plans this winter to trade Andrew McCutchen — whom they moved out of center field this year in part because Marte is better — Marte might have been considered the face of the franchise this year.
He is the biggest name nailed for PED use since Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon, at the time the reigning NL batting champ, a year ago this month.
In his statement released through the players’ union, Marte attributed his positive test to “neglect and lack of knowledge,” though that is a dubious claim given the long history of nandrolone, a popular drug during the “steroids era” of the 2000s, when it frequently went by the brand name Deca Durabolin.
“With much embarrassment and helplessness,” Marte’s statement read, “I ask for forgiveness for unintentionally disrespecting so many people who have trusted in my work and have supported me so much.”
Now, the Pirates must make do for half a season without their regular center fielder and No. 2 hitter, a devastating blow for a team that is only two years removed from a playoff appearance, that contended for a wild card deep into last September and that fancied itself as a playoff contender again in 2017. The fact the NL Central appears wide open at the moment — with the World Series champion Cubs off to a slow start and the runner-up Cardinals off to a terrible one — only makes the loss of Marte more difficult to swallow.
Even if the Pirates survive and somehow make the playoffs, they would not have Marte in October, thanks to a provision initiated in 2013 that bars players who have served suspensions during the season to play for their teams in that postseason.
The Pirates aren’t without options for replacing Marte. They could move McCutchen back to center — a position at which he won a Gold Glove in 2012 and one he was not happy about giving up in the first place — and use utility man Adam Frazier in left. They could also promote Austin Meadows, the organization’s top prospect, now playing for Class AAA Indianapolis and off to a dreadfully slow start. For now, at least, they have recalled outfielder Jose Osuna from Indianapolis to take Marte’s roster spot, although Osuna is not nearly the prospect Meadows is.
On April 9, a week into the Pirates’ season, Marte had a game that showed both how brilliant and exasperating he could be on a baseball field. As the Pirates attempted to come back against the Atlanta Braves, Marte was picked off base twice in a span of three innings. But he also had a critical RBI single during the Pirates’ eighth-inning rally, then in the bottom of the 10th, connected on a two-run, walk-off home run.
“Truly the only five-tool player I’ve played with,” Pirates ace Gerrit Cole told reporters that day. “He can just do so many special things.”
Marte is a player who, on any given day, can win a game for you with his bat or his defense. But with Tuesday’s news, he has cost the Pirates in immeasurable ways.