Last week, Major League Baseball suspended Pirates center fielder Starling Marte for 80 games for using performance enhancing drugs.
That suspension means Marte, who has four more years left on a $31 million contract, won’t be eligible to play in the post-season, even if the Bucs make the playoffs this season because of a rule change agreed upon in the most recent round of collective bargaining.
90.5 WESA’s Christopher Ayers spoke to ESPN senior baseball writer Buster Olney, who said the Pirates will now never recoup the investment they’ve made in the 28-year-old slugger.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CHRIS AYERS: So the gist of your story, published after the news of Starling Marte's suspension broke, argues that the pirates will now never be able to recoup the investment they made in him. Could you just explain the magnitude of that investment and the team's expectations for Marte?
BUSTER OLNEY: Yeah, and especially within the context of the reality that the Pirates are a small-market team and you know they're not able to go after free agents and they have to choose their investments wisely given how much money they spend in payroll. So now with Marte, not only is this a body blow for the organization, for the 2017 season, but also going forward they're not going to be in a position where they're going to be able to market Marte. And there are questions within the Pirates organization, every other organization, “OK. Now that he's been busted for performance enhancing drugs, how much of his success to this point is based on that?” And they'll never know the answer to that and neither will other teams and that's going to affect his value.
AYERS: Some people might be wondering is he a long-term PED user or just started using PEDs?
OLNEY: Yeah. And in some respects if, in fact he's a one-time user and this was an emergent situation, then he's going to suffer in perception from all of what we've seen in the last 20 years and baseball's players claiming that they didn't use PEDs, like Alex Rodriguez, and later being found to have been using PEDs all along. And because of that, I think that when a player like Marte gets suspended, then it raises questions within the Pirates organization, within other organizations, where now they look at his past performance through a different prism and moving into the future through a different prism. But there will be people who will assume that to this point some of his success at least is based on the use of performance enhancing drugs.
AYERS: So, how does his absence affect the team on the field then – in both the short and long term, and the prospects for their season?
OLNEY: Boy, in the short term it's a crusher, because at this point he really is their best positioned player. And now you take him out of out of the equation and the Pirates have already lost Jung Ho Kang, their third baseman, you know to his DUI incident in Korea and the fact that he can't get a visa. Those are effectively two of the three best players now gone because of off-field stuff. And here's the problem for the Pirates too, even if they somehow managed to scrape by and survive his 80 game absence and make the playoffs after he joins the team, he is now ineligible to play in the post-season given a rule change with Major League Baseball a couple of years ago. That really hurts them.
AYERS: Other franchises have dealt with these types of suspensions before when players get caught using PEDs. You seem to be making the case that a debacle like this is especially crushing for a team like the Pirates, a small market team. How does this set them back?
OLNEY: Well, it just depends on what Marte does when he comes back. If he goes out in 2018 and he has a great season, then he will re-establish his value. At that point, people would be looking at his contract which is team-friendly. And look at that as being something that could be valuable to another team if the Pirates at some point decided to make a trade. But all you have to do is look at the situation with the Milwaukee Brewers and Ryan Braun to understand how devastating this could be. The Brewers invested in Ryan Braun as the face of the franchise, they gave him a huge contract. And then when Ryan Braun was busted, you know, from that point forward Ryan Braun's value to the Brewers has plummeted because they really can't market him anymore. He's a good player on the field. But folks with other teams when they assess possible trades with the Brewers, what you hear from them a lot off-the-record is you know what. You've got the PED thing. You'd have to sell that to your fan base if he traded for him. It's been devastating for the Brewers.
AYERS: Forbes magazine recently said that the Pirates are now worth $1.5 billion based largely on speculation that their next TV deal will be more lucrative. Does this situation have any impact on something like that, the team's overall value?
OLNEY: You know, I've been covering baseball for 30 years, and you do not get access to specific team books – if I'm making sense. And so I don't necessarily take those type of numbers at face value. Now, there's no question that the Pirates’ team value has gone up, a lucrative regional television contract would help that even more. I don't think the Marte’s situation is going to affect that. It could affect what the Pirates draw at the ballpark, because if they decide mid-season this year if they're not good enough to contend and they decide to trade into Andrew McCutchen midseason, maybe some other players mid-season, let's face it, that's probably going to affect the enthusiasm of fan. As opposed to where we were just a few days ago, which is the pirates are looking like a team that could contend for wildcard spots and draw a lot of interest this year.
AYERS: So what do you make of the Pirates so far? You know, before the whole Marte thing?
ONLEY: Well, before the season started, I picked them to be one of the two wildcard teams in the National League. They had so many things go wrong last year, you know, starting with Andrew McCutchen's performance. And you looked at the pitching staff, some of the promising young players and the expectation that Andrew McCutchen would bounce back at least some for this year and it looked like a playoff team. And I can tell you this that the other day when news broke within the Pirates organization about Marte’s forthcoming suspension, that their leadership committee gathered and the players talked about, “OK, what's the situation with Marte?” And quickly, from what I've been told by sources, the conversation turned toward, they have something to prove, they feel like going forward. And they feel like that, “We're going to make the best of this. We're going to get this done anyway.”