Starling Marte is quickly becoming the big story of Pirates spring training in Bradenton, Fla.
The 23-year old outfielder is 9-of-13 with a pair of home runs in the team's first six games this spring, and put together eight-straight hits spread over the last four games before a flyout ended that streak in his last at-bat on Thursday afternoon in a 5-4 loss against the Phillies.
All this comes after an excellent season at Double-A Altoona in 2011 that saw Marte hit for a .332 batting average, an .870 OPS and 12 home runs to go with 24 stolen bases. He's among the Pirates' best prospects, and if he keeps producing at this pace, he'll be with the Bucs sooner than later.
Don't expect that to happen immediately, however. The front office likes to bring prospects along slowly, as they should. The Bucs are unlikely to rush Marte, and they'll be right not to.
For one thing, they don't have to -- not that a 90-loss team ever really does. The Pirates' outfield is in pretty good shape at the moment. Andrew McCutchen is the team's new $51.5 million man in center field, and Jose Tabata and Alex Presley have both proven serviceable at the corners. Nate McLouth, brought back into the mix in the offseason from Atlanta, has something to prove after hitting just .228 with four home runs in 2011, but has had success in Pittsburgh and shouldn't be too much of a concern as the fourth outfielder even if he does struggle again. Then, of course, there's regular first baseman Garrett Jones, who can play the outfield in a pinch.
In short, there are no glaring holes in this group, especially not in the regular starting lineup that will likely feature McCutchen, Tabata and Presley as regulars. Marte is very probably a better player than McLouth right now, but the Pirates rightly won't want to use one of their best prospects to be a bench player.
While his production thus far in spring training has to be encouraging for everyone involved, he still hasn't taken an at-bat that counts above the Double-A level. It's true that he might survive at the Major League level if he skipped Class AAA, but there's no indication yet that he can thrive for a sustained period.
And if the Pirates are going to start Marte's free agency clock, they need to be sure they're going to get the most out of him when they do so. That should mean at least a little bit of seasoning in Triple-A to open 2012, where he can play every day, rather than begin rotting on the bench in Pittsburgh. While he's at Indianapolis, Marte, who hit 12 homers and drew only 22 walks last season, can keep working on developing his power and plate discipline.
Then, when he does make the roster later this season or early in 2013, he can hopefully step in and become a true impact player as a starting outfielder.
Pirates fans should certainly be excited about Marte's eye-popping numbers from Marte so far this spring. But those numbers probably aren't a realistic look at the present. They might, however, be a glimpse into the future.