Starling Marte Is the New York Mets' Must-Have Offseason Prize

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 2, 2019

Pittsburgh Pirates' Starling Marte hits a two-run home run in the eight inning to take the lead in the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019, in Pittsburgh. The Pirates won 4-1. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

What's a team to do when the free-agent market doesn't have any fixes for one of said team's biggest offseason needs?

If you're the New York Mets, call up the Pittsburgh Pirates and work out a trade for Starling Marte.

If they want to improve on their respectable 86-76 showing in 2019, the Mets arguably need starting pitchers and relief pitchers above all else. But with Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman leading their rotation and Edwin Diaz and Jeurys Familia possibly waiting to bounce back in their bullpen, one can just as easily argue they already have the arms they need.

The Mets themselves seem to view center field differently. They have their eye on Marte, according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network: 

Jon Heyman @JonHeyman

Mets have interest in Starling Marte. Fits what they seek — strong defender in CF, righthanded hitter. Pirates still working on manager. Uncertain if he’ll be dealt. Cubs, Reds, Padres among others who will look at center fielders.

The uncertainty referenced by Heyman calls to mind what Adam Berry of MLB.com wrote about the Pirates and Marte in October: "I've asked around a little bit over the last few weeks, and the people I've heard from within the industry currently expect that Marte will begin next season with the Pirates."

But whereas manager Clint Hurdle was initially the only casualty of the Pirates' ugly 69-93 season, the organization effectively committed to a rebuild in October. Coaches Tom Prince and Ray Searage, president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington all got the boot.

In came GM Ben Cherington in November, and out came an all-new mission statement. As quoted by Rob Biertempfel of The Athletic:

"We need to be honest about where we are. That's not to suggest that if we did nothing, the team is going to win 69 games again (in 2020). There could be natural improvement that comes from within and my hope is that there would be. But to become a playoff team, you're talking about adding a lot of wins. There is no single player that's going to do that. It's going to be lots of players doing that. A lot of it is going to be players who are here and improving over time. Some of it will be by acquiring players over time."

Marte, 31, is potentially the Pirates' top trade chip. He's an All-Star and two-time Gold Glover who'll make just $11.5 million in 2020. He also has a club option for 2021 that's valued at only $12.5 million.

Meanwhile on the free-agent market, Nicholas Castellanos, Marcell Ozuna and Yasiel Puig highlight a strong collection of corner outfielders. But on the center field market, there's really only role-player types and 30-something has-beens.

In other words, not what the Mets need in center field. 

DENVER, CO - AUGUST 29: Starling Marte #6 of the Pittsburgh Pirates catches a fly ball off the bat of Nolan Arenado of the Colorado Rockies to end the fifth inning at Coors Field on August 29, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Joe Mahoney/Getty Images)
Joe Mahoney/Getty Images

According to Baseball Reference, the Mets got only 0.2 wins above replacement out of center field in 2019. That was mainly the doing of Juan Lagares (who's now a free agent), Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto, who combined for a .710 OPS, 21 home runs and 10 stolen bases on offense and minus-13 defensive runs saved in the field.

If nothing else, Marte would be an immediate offensive upgrade for the Mets in center field. 

After bottoming out with a .712 OPS, seven homers and 21 steals in a 2017 season that was also marred by an 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, Marte has bounced back with an .816 OPS, 43 homers and 58 steals over the last two seasons.

And despite his age, he may yet have some untapped offensive potential. He's fresh off posting his best xwOBA—which is based on strikeouts, walks and contact quality—of the five-year Statcast era in 2019.

Two related stories involve how Marte is cutting down on strikeouts while also upping his hard-hit rate:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs

With Conforto, Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Robinson Cano, Amed Rosario, J.D. Davis, Wilson Ramos and Dom Smith in place, the Mets already boast one of the National League's stronger lineups. Add Marte to the mix, and it enters into the league's inner circle of offensive threats.

What Marte would mean to the Mets on defense is a tougher nut to crack. Though he was an outstanding left fielder, he's been just OK since moving to center field in place of Andrew McCutchen two seasons ago. Indeed, he was downright bad in posting a minus-nine DRS in 2019.

Yet that mark isn't a reflection of where Marte's athleticism is at these days. Per Baseball Savant, he ranked in the 92nd percentile for sprint speed and in the 90th percentile for the quickness of his jumps in  pursuit of the ball in the outfield. 

This suggests Marte's defensive struggle in 2019 might have had more to do with his positioning. To wit, his average starting position in center field moved from 321 feet from home plate in 2018 to 325 feet in 2019. As his plus-1 DRS would indicate, where he was playing in 2018 clearly worked better.

Since Marte doesn't have a no-trade clause, where he ultimately plays in 2020 isn't up to him. But as he told Hector Gomez of Deportivo, he'd welcome a trade to the Mets:

Héctor Gómez @hgomez27

Starling Marte about possible trade to the Mets: “The Mets are in position to do that (ready to compete right now on a World Series) and it will be an honor to play with them. If it doesn’t happen, I will keep working hard and giving my team all I have.” (2/2) https://t.co/Bxa2ggobrw

Because the Mets are projected to be roughly $10.3 million under the $208 million luxury-tax threshold for 2020, how to take on Marte's $11.5 million salary without triggering penalties is potentially a significant complication for them.

Yet it's possible the Mets have more luxury-tax breathing room than the above projection indicates. If not, they could always try to get the Pirates to throw in some cash in exchange for a better package of talent.

As it is, a trade for two modestly priced years of Marte could cost the Mets one of the three top-100 prospects in their farm system. Per MLB.com, they are: shortstop Ronny Mauricio (No. 80), third baseman Brett Baty (No. 81) and shortstop Andres Gimenez (No. 92). 

Then again, the Mets aren't really in a position to have any untouchables. Their championship window is wide-open and yet not made to remain wide-open for the foreseeable future.

Between that and the degree to which free agency has dismantled the World Series champion Washington Nationals, now is the time for the Mets to make a bold move that would solidify their place in the NL East and the National League at large.


Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. Payroll data courtesy of Roster Resource.