PITTSBURGH — Starling Marte insists he still isn’t sure exactly how the illegal steroid that cost the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder an 80-game suspension got into his system. All set to return Tuesday night, he stressed he did not inject himself with Nandrolone but understands he was “careless” while spending last offseason in his native Dominican Republic.
“That’s something I regret, not being careful enough,” Marte said through translator Mike Gonzalez on Monday in the final hours before his forced half-season sabbatical ends.
The 28-year-old, a two-time Gold Glove winner and one-time All-Star, apologized to his teammates in the minutes after his suspension was handed down on April 18. He offered a broader one to the organization and the fan base, well aware his misstep could follow him for the remainder of his career.
“”I can’t lie to you, there is a bit of a concern,” Marte said. “But I respect anything that’s thrown my way, I understand it. I would wish that things would go smoothly but I can’t say that they will. Whether it goes positively or negatively, I will be motivated.”
The Pirates went 39-41 during Marte’s absence and are 45-48 overall, staying on the fringe of an underwhelming NL Central race while using a patched together lineup that forced manager Clint Hurdle to get creative. John Jaso, Adam Frazier and Jose Osuna — all infielders by trade — have found themselves in the outfield at various times, with mixed results. Hurdle plans to pencil Marte’s No. 6 in the lineup on Tuesday and see where it goes.
The smaller picture for the Pirates is whether they can make enough headway in the division over the next two weeks to make a push for a playoff spot or go into sell mode at the trade deadline. The bigger picture is Marte’s ability to regain trust inside the clubhouse and in the front office of the team that awarded him with a six-year, $31 million contract in 2014.
Marte spent the majority of his suspension near the team’s minor league headquarters in Bradenton, Florida, watching every game either with his family or the young prospects who work out at Pirate City. He felt the acute anguish of each loss and traded texts and notes with a handful of teammates but remains well aware there is work to be done.
“Some of them were upset,” Marte said. “Some of them were disappointed. I completely respect that and understand that. These are teammates that have been with me through thick and thin, who are family in there. Even though some of them are upset and disappointed, a lot of them said ‘Look, take the suspension, train hard, come back and help us win.’”
Marte’s absence forced Hurdle to return Andrew McCutchen to center field, where McCutchen will stay even with Marte back in the fold. Marte, who won Gold Gloves in both 2015 and 2016 while working in spacious left field at PNC Park, has no issue with the switch. At this point, he’s simply happy to play.
Marte was hitting .241 with two homers and seven RBIs in 13 games when he was penalized. He took batting practice early Monday afternoon, and his locker in the corner of the clubhouse — just across the way from longtime friends McCutchen, second baseman Josh Harrison and right fielder Gregory Polanco — was restocked with gear. It felt normal. Almost. Hurdle expects the transition back to Marte will be “smooth.”
Marte is focused on not becoming a distraction and those who have known him the longest aren’t worried about him disrupting chemistry on a team that entered Monday playing its best baseball of the season while winning seven of nine.
“If somebody judges him, that’s not for me personally,” Harrison said. “You’re back to wearing our colors, you’re our brother. We told him from Day 1, certain actions we might not agree with … at the end of the day, he’s paid his dues.”
Marte hit .304 with a home run and three RBIs in 12 minor league starts. The plan is to throw him back into the everyday rotation hoping he can provide a spark for a club that’s been searching for one since opening day.
“I felt the hurt behind the losses and unfortunately what happened in the past is in the past,” he said. “Coming back my goal is to join them and get some victories for this organization.”