There was a little news coming out of Cheney Stadium on Thursday night. The lineup for Class AAA Tacoma came out around 5 p.m. and Ketel Marte was atop the batting order in his customary leadoff spot and listed as the starter in …. center field.
Rainiers broadcaster Mike Curto broke the news.
It will be the first time that Marte makes a start in the outfield in his career. In 435 games, Marte had only played shortstop (357), second baseman (76) and DH (1).
“I think we want to expose him to playing a few different positions,” Mariner director of player development Chris Gwynn said. “He’s athletic. We think he might be able to do it. He needs to get familiar with center field.”
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Gwynn wasn’t sure how many times a week Marte will play center field. But said he will still also play some shortstop.
While this may seem like a bit of a stunner, this process has been in the works for some time. The Mariners actually approached Marte about beginning to do some pregame work in the outfield on May 31 before a Rainiers game at Cheney Stadium.
“That night he got hurt,” Gwynn said.
Marte suffered a broken thumb while running the bases and missed the next six weeks recovering. He returned to playing a few days before the all-star break and participated in the Futures Game, playing second base and in the Class AAA all-star game as the Pacific Coast League starting shortstop.
“Once he got healthy and started playing again, it was something we still wanted to keep exploring,” Gwynn said of center field. “It’s not like he won’t ever play shortstop again, but we wanted to start playing him out there. We want to make him more versatile. It’s something we do with all of our players. We try to make them versatile. Every player that signs as a shortstop also plays some second base. And if a guy can play third base or outfield we put them out there. That way if someone asks if he can play there, we know. “
The Mariners believe it’s being proactive with the unpredictability of development and roster construction.
But beyond the desire of versatility, there was a growing feeling that Marte might not project as an every day shortstop from a defensive standpoint. It something that was mentioned from opposing scouts and some people within the Mariners’ organization as the AAA season began to progress. Doubts about Marte’s arm strength and ability to get rid of the ball quickly were prevalent as well as the ability to make the routine plays on a consistent basis. Marte did struggle early in spring training with some errors, but the Mariners chalked that up to the nerves of performing at big league camp. He had committed nine errors in 46 games with Tacoma. Marte’s early hot streak at the plate – a .343/.394/.433 slash line – before the injury almost earned him a call-up as a shortstop. But Brad Miller eventually earned back the spot and has played well of late.
Realistically, Marte projects as a second baseman. But with the Mariners entrenched with Robinson Cano there, it’s obvious that Marte is blocked. The idea of trying him in center field is a logical step. Marte is a plus runner and extremely athletic.
“He’s not a what you would call a burner, but he’s instinctive player and he learns quickly,” Gwynn said. “He loves to play and he isn’t afraid of anything. And being a switch hitter is only going to help him. He’s had pretty good plate discipline this season.”
Marte can look at the roster and see the roadblocks to the big leagues. This might be his best and quickest route there. The Mariners’ center field prospects are pretty thin. With Austin Jackson headed for free agency after the season, Marte and James Jones could be the next logical in-house candidates.
“He was positive about trying this,” Gwynn said. “He’s a smart kid. He knows and he’s still only 21. I couldn’t be more proud of one of our players. He’s really grown as a player the last few seasons.”