Pirates center fielder Starling Marte isn’t a perfect player, but he’s a very good one. And he’s now within two seasons of free agency, with the Bucs looking increasingly unlikely to contend before that time comes. The 31-year-old ought to have plenty of appeal, given that he can be controlled through 2021 for just $24MM (and perhaps issued a qualifying offer thereafter). Marte doesn’t draw walks and hasn’t quite reached the ceiling it once seemed he was headed for, but he’s a well-above-average hitter who runs the bases with aplomb and defends well. He has played like a first-division regular since cracking the majors and was his usual self in 2019 before a wrist injury ended his season.
Beyond a neutral value perspective, the market particulars seem to line up well for the Pirates to achieve an appealing return. Free agent options are generally uninspiring. And there are plenty of teams that have good reason to show interest. Here are the most interesting possible suitors (in alphabetical order):
- Blue Jays: It’s time to gain some traction in Toronto and a center field upgrade stands out as one major way to make gains. Teoscar Hernandez and Randal Grichuk held things down in marginal fashion in 2019 after the departure of another OBP-challenged player with pop, Kevin Pillar. There are loads of young position players on the Jays roster, but none stands out as a likely everyday option in center in the near term. The Toronto front office is going to need to make some tough calls on its talent, giving up on and/or trading away some players. With the Pirates always on the lookout for ways to add multiple affordable/controllable MLB assets in a single trade, perhaps there’s a match here.
- Cubs: It may be tough to hammer things out with a division rival, but the Cubs have to consider a look here after watching Albert Almora stumble in 2019. The club may not have immense payroll flexibility but wouldn’t need all that much of it to go for Marte. And the Cubs are loaded up reasonably talented, relatively youthful position players that haven’t (yet?) established themselves as highly valuable big leaguers. If the Bucs take a shine to one or more of these players, it’s not too hard to imagine something coming together.
- Mets: Even if you’re a big believer in the Mets’ top 2020 outfield options — Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, J.D. Davis, and Yoenis Cespedes, with Jeff McNeil also a factor depending upon other moves and needs — the roster feels like it’s missing a true center fielder. And the front office can’t afford to be timid. Many of the pieces needed to contend are there, but the club hasn’t made it into the postseason since 2016.
- Phillies: While Odubel Herrera could be a factor when he is reinstated from his suspension, it’s not really clear at this point whether the Philadelphia organization will choose to carry him moving forward. Adam Haseley and Scott Kingery are options, but it’s tough to see the win-now Phils simply turning over the keys to either or both. Money isn’t an issue and this organization needs to put as many high-quality players on the roster as it can. Plus, the club has recently dealt for players in roughly similar contractual situations (J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura).
- Rangers: The Texas organization can run Joey Gallo up the middle, which is quite a nice luxury, but probably prefers to limit the wear and tear to their star slugger. Better to plant him in a corner and install a regular center fielder. Delino DeShields Jr. isn’t that. With Willie Calhoun also an option in a corner, the Texas org could (but would not necessarily need to) utilize Nomar Mazara in this or another trade.
- Reds: Though Nick Senzel is a possibility in center, he’s also a strong candidate to move back to his native second base. And though the Reds do have a few outfield bats, none profiles as an everyday guy up the middle. The club already dealt away top center field prospect Taylor Trammell and has made clear it’s planning to push hard for the postseason in 2020. Having made several deals for veterans in recent years, it stands to reason that the Reds will look closely at an intra-division swap for Marte.
- White Sox: What’s that? Why yes, I also hear wunderkind Luis Robert banging on the door. But he may not open the year with the MLB club and it isn’t as if his value is tied inextricably to his ability to play up the middle. More importantly, the White Sox need another outfielder even if Robert and Eloy Jimenez occupy two of the spots for years to come. It’s nice to have some flexibility, and there are other possibilities in free agency, but Marte stands out as a potential impact addition that wouldn’t tie up loads of future payroll. With pressure building on the Chicago front office to produce winning baseball, it’s a possibility worth examining.
- Other Possibilities: You have to begin getting creative from this point, but plenty of other teams could yet become involved. Several stand out, depending upon their particular views of their own situations. The Cardinals are another team with multiple options but no clear, immediate solution in center. It seems a bit unlikely but they’re arguably the most plausible of this bunch. The Giants need a center fielder, assuming they non-tender Kevin Pillar, but it feels early to push in trade chips for two seasons of Marte. Out in San Diego, there are possibilities — including the aforementioned Trammell, in the near future — but not much set in stone. And the Mariners are an opportunistic potential buyer now that they are trying to ramp up, though it seems likelier they’ll stick with internal options.