PHOENIX — Given Major league baseball’s slow methodical, approach to transactions, this came later rather than at an opportune time. Talks begin, talks fade, the ebb and flow is uncertain, and at best, painfully excruciating.
Coming into the present off-season, general manager Mike Hazen of the Arizona Diamondbacks faced a major issue and that was the positioning of Ketel Marte.
Honored with a spot on the National League 2019 All-Star team as a second baseman, Marte eventually split last season between second and center field. Given the incumbent Marte’s adoption of second, and his production and value at that position, Hazen sought every opportunity to keep him in the infield. That meant searching for a center fielder and the Diamondbacks, from the commencement of the off-season, had Sterling Marte of the Pittsburgh Pirates on their radar screen.
As soon as the Pirates announced the hiring of Ben Cherington as their general manager on Nov. 18 of last year, Hazen immediately reached out. Though conversations were cordial, and the dialogue increased at the December winter meetings in San Diego, trade talk involved Starling Marte slowly abated. Then in mid-January, talks resumed, accelerated and during the final weekend of the month, a deal, to bring Starling Marte to the desert, was made.
By acquiring Marte, who is 31-years-old, to play center field, Hazen put the final piece in place of what could be a very potent offense. Now, it’s up the pitching staff in general, and the starters in particular, to limit the opposition. If that happens, the Diamondbacks could be one of the first teams in recent years to truly challenge the Los Angeles Dodgers for NL West Division supremacy.
Starling Marte, who hits right-handed, comes to the Diamondbacks as a lifetime .287 hitter for eight major league seasons. He reached career highs in homers (23) and RBIs (82) last season and stole 239 bases in his career. That includes a career-high 47 steals in 2016.
In a conference call Monday, Hazen told reporters the Dodgers remain a formidable opponent but the acquisition of Starling Marte, outfielder Kole Calhoun and left-handed pitcher Madison Bumgarner closes the gap.
“The Dodgers, historically, have earned what they accomplished over the past five years,” Hazen said. “Coming into the off-season, we believed any one player could not close the gap, but now, we feel we are stronger. We believe we have a deeper roster and pitching is strong from top to bottom.”
Now with his outfield set and Ketel Marte in his rightful position at second, Hazen pointed out that his team has greater offensive flexibility. That takes into the account Marte and Edouard Escobar, a pair of switch-hitters in the lineup every day, and that gives field manager Torey Lovullo several options.
While Hazen would not commit Sterling Marte to any slot in the batting order, he made sure listeners know his team has the potential to be one of the stronger offensive units in the National League.
“We do not have a traditional batting order,” Hazen indicated. “I would say Starling would fit in anywhere between one and five in the order. Given what Starling has done in the past and the switch-hitting of Ketel and Escobar, these players can fit around what (Lovullo) wants to do on a daily basis.”
For his part, Starling Marte said he was relieved to end trade rumors, which plagued him during the off-season, and ready to settle in the desert. Given a drop in his defense analytics over the past few seasons, the Diamondbacks expect Sterling to work with outfield coach Dave McKay this spring, who is regarded as one of the best in the game.
“Right now, I’m good and not knowing where I was going is over,” Starling Marte said in the second part of that conference call through interpreter Martin Bater. “I’m happy to be here, and ready to focus on my new team and teammates.”
In the Starling Marte deal …
To acquire Marte, Hazen parted with two prized prospects, right-handed pitcher Brennan Malone and infielder Liover Peguero. Both are 19-years-old.
Malone, whom the Diamondbacks selected in the compensatory first round (33 overall) in the 2019 draft, appeared in seven games (three starts) for short season Hillsboro and Rookie Level AZ last year. Overall, he was 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA.
Peguero split the 2019 season between Rookie-Advanced Missoula and Hillsboro, batted .326 with 11 doubles, five triples, 5 homers and drove in 38 runs. He also chipped in with 11 stolen bases.
To make room on the 40-man roster for Starling Marte, the Diamondbacks designed infielder Pat Valaika for assignment.