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Getting to know Mets center fielder Starling Marte

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In Marte, the Mets get an elite baserunner, a strong defensive center fielder, a contact hitter, and a clubhouse asset whose journey in the major leagues has not been without its challenges.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

As a teenager in the Dominican Republic, Starling Marte began his baseball career as a shortstop. Although former international scouting director for the Pirates Rene Gayo wanted to sign Marte, others in the organization were not persuaded, partially due to his poor defense at shortstop. Then, two things happened: Marte became an outfielder and he showed up to a workout he wasn’t invited to. In 2007, the Pirates signed the 18-year-old Marte for $85,000.

After his big league debut in 2012, Marte spent the first eight seasons of his major league career in Pittsburgh. In 953 games with the Pirates, Marte batted .287/.341/.452 with a 115 OPS+. He collected over 1,000 hits, hit over 100 home runs, drove in 420 runs, and stole 239 bases in those eight seasons. He put himself on the map on the national stage with a ninth inning home run against the Cubs at Wrigley Field in 2013 that lifted the Pirates to victory (“Let’s have a Marte Party!”) and helped them clinch their first playoff spot in 21 years (that game also prominently features former Met and Pirate, Neil Walker). The Pirates signed Marte to a six-year, $31 million contract extension ahead of the 2014 season. 2016 was arguably Marte’s best season as a Pirate; he stole a career-high 47 bases, was named to the National League All-Star Team, and won his second consecutive Gold Glove.

But then in April of 2017, entering the prime of his career at age 28, Marte was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for nandrolone. “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,” Marte said in a statement in the aftermath of his suspension. “With much embarrassment and helplessness, I ask for forgiveness for unintentionally disrespecting so many people who have trusted in my work and have supported me so much. I promise to learn the lesson that this ordeal has left me.” At the time, some national baseball writers went as far as to compare what Marte did to marital infidelity and opine that Marte will “never return the Pirates’ investment.”

Nonetheless, Marte returned from his suspension and had two very Starling Martesque seasons in 2018 (114 OPS+, 20 HR, 72 RBI, 33 SB) and 2019 (119 OPS+, 23 HR, 82 RBI, 25 SB). In the 2019-2020 offseason, with one guaranteed year remaining on Marte’s contract plus a club option for 2021, the Pirates traded Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a pair of prospects—2019 first-rounder Brennan Malone and shorstop Liover Peguero—and international bonus pool money.

Then, tragedy struck. Prior to the start of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Marte’s wife Noelia fractured her ankle in mid-May. While she was in the hospital awaiting surgery, she suffered a heart attack and passed away. “It is a moment of indescribable pain,” Marte wrote on social media after her death. “On behalf of my family, I am grateful for the expressions of esteem and solidarity in this difficult time.” Facing life as a single parent, Marte considered retiring from baseball, but after conversations with his church community, he changed his mind, thinking that baseball would be a welcome distraction from his grief. Sadly, Marte is no stranger to loss. He was raised by his grandmother and aunts after losing his mother when he was just nine years old. “I lost my mother, but this feels different. I was just a kid,” he said. “Now, I’m an adult and I understand what this loss means to me and the kids. They don’t understand and everything reminds them of her, but we are all working together to go forward.” Thanks in part to support he received from his Diamondbacks teammates and coaches, he did just that.

Marte played just 33 games with the Diamondbacks before being traded to the playoff contending Miami Marlins in 2020. His production declined in 2020 as a Marlin, but he bounced back and had the best season of his career in 2021. He matched his career best of 47 stolen bases, which is just seven fewer than the Mets’ entire roster last year. And he managed this feat despite missing just over a month of the season due to a rib fracture. He has the third-most stolen bases in baseball since 2018, behind only Trea Turner and Whit Merrifield. He also hit .310 in 2021. Only three Mets in franchise history have hit .300 and stolen 40 bases in a season: José Reyes, Roger Cedeño, and Lance Johnson. After putting up a 133 OPS+ in 64 games with the Marlins in 2021 and failed attempts at an extension on the part of Miami, he was once again traded—this time to the Oakland A’s in return for Jesús Luzardo. He continued to produce with the A’s, posting a 130 OPS+ with five home runs and 30 RBIs in the second half. Overall in 2021, he accrued 4.7 bWAR/5.5 fWAR and went into the offseason the free agent class’ most coveted centerfielder by a fairly significant margin.

Many teams pursued the 33-year-old, including the Marlins, who made a “strong” offer, but were ultimately outbid by the Mets, who find themselves with a true centerfielder for the first time in years—and one who consistently puts up above average offense while being one of the top stolen base threats in the game. “Starling is a premier talent at a premier position,” Mets GM Billy Eppler said as the signing was made official. “His play in the outfield makes the team stronger at run prevention up the middle and his elite base-running skills are a perfect blend. He has a winning attitude and will be a huge asset as well in our clubhouse.” Although that last sentence may induce an eye roll on the part of some readers, harkening back to the fated “clubhouse chemistry” conversations at last season’s trading deadline, these aren’t simply empty words from Eppler. Andrew McCutchen, who was Marte’s teammate in Pittsburgh from 2012-2016 called Marte “one of a kind.”

“I was in the dugout with him in Houston during his big league debut [in 2012], and he looked at me and winked,” McCutchen said of Marte. “He says, ‘I’m going to swing and I’m going to hit a home run in my first at-bat.’ And what do you know? He hits a homer. Right then, you knew he was going to be somebody that could play, but also somebody that enjoyed the game. You need that on a team. Every team needs somebody like that who doesn’t take everything so seriously all of the time.”

Starling Marte is indisputably the Mets’ most impactful position player acquisition so far this offseason; he fits the Mets like a glove and fills a very obvious need on the roster. It is a move that elicits memories of the Curtis Granderson signing in 2013 and one can certainly envision a future where Marte is just as impactful and fun to root for as Granderson was.