Starling Marte crushed the first pitch he saw in a major league uniform, sending the ball off the train tracks in left-center field at Minute Maid Park for his first career home run. As a Pirates fan, the drama of seeing your top hitting prospect contributing to a winning team on the first pitch of his career was magical.
And yet, for the organization, Marte's home run symbolized so much more.
For the Pirates, the home run symbolized the beginning of what hopefully will be a strong Latin-American pool of talent in the future. Marte has the potential to become Pittsburgh's biggest home-grown, latin star since Aramis Ramirez over ten years ago. Compound the five million dollar Dominican Academy that opened in 2009 with the aggressive international signings over the last four years, and the Pirates look like an organization loaded with potential impact players.
Those efforts over the last four years have just now started to bear fruit for the Pirates. The low-A affiliate, West Virginia Power, boasts two hitters in the top five in batting average in the South Atlantic League; both players signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2009. Those players are shortstop Alen Hanson and outfielder Gregory Polanco.
Hanson showed a lot of potential when he hit .324 in the DSL two years ago, however, his stock has really taken off this season. In his first full season playing in the US, Hanson is batting .319/.382/.556 with 15 home runs and 27 stolen bases. His 34 errors seem to leave considerable doubt that he'll stay stick at shortstop, but his hitting shows a lot of promise.
Meanwhile, Gregory Polanco has used his time in West Virginia to be a breakout prospect, batting .324/.389/.517 with 13 home runs and 39 stolen bases. Standing 6'4 170 pounds, Polanco certainly has room to fill out and become a potential power hitter at a corner outfield spot.
Then there's Luis Heredia, the 17 year old $2.6 million investment that is currently dominating college draftees for the State College Spikes. Heredia is 2-1 with a 1.85 ERA and 1.03 WHIP. His 7 walks in 34 innings are especially impressive given how young he is.
Hanson, Polanco and Heredia all have the ultimate goal of reaching the major leagues and with Starling Marte's arrival to Pittsburgh, they all have someone to look to as a reference. At the same time, these aren't the only international signees with the potential to play in Pittsburgh as the list of prospects goes far deeper. Harold Ramirez, last year's $1 million signee, is off to a fast start in the GCL. The list of prospects is expected to grow as the Pirates signed top-20 international prospect Julio de la Cruz last month.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are finally tapping into a market of young players that was previously overlooked by the organization. Ironically, it will be the previous owner's $85,000 player, Starling Marte, that jump starts what hopefully will be a long tenure of international success in Pittsburgh.