Sep 23, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates left fielder Starling Marte (6) hits a go ahead home run against the Chicago Cubs during the ninth inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Starling Marte could be the Pittsburgh Pirates' playoff X-factor

Starling Marte commanded attention right from the start.

The Dominican-born outfielder made his MLB debut last August in Houston at the age of 23, drilling a home run to lead off the game – and his Pittsburgh Pirates career – in spectacular fashion.

At 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, Marte possesses an athletic frame and the ability to match. He has the ball-hawking skills to rival the best center fielders in the game (including teammate Andrew McCutchen), great linear speed on the base paths and a lively arm that already has a reputation as he just begins what should be a long stay in the big leagues. Marte is also one of the longest-tenured members of the organization, as his 2007 signing puts him behind only Neil Walker and McCutchen as far as Bucco seniority goes.

For all his positive attributes, Marte’s not perfect. Entering Wednesday’s game in Chicago, he leads MLB in triples (10) and is seventh in stolen bases (37), but he’s also been caught stealing 15 times, the most in the majors. Marte’s plate discipline has improved since last year, when he posted a 50-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 47 games, but only slightly. His OBP is .343, 61 points higher than his raw batting average but still not quite where a good leadoff hitter should be.

But despite some of his lingering rawness, Marte has been one of the Pirates’ MVPs in their first winning season since 1992. According to Baseball Reference, he’s been worth about five wins more than a replacement-level player this year, second only to McCutchen’s eight added victories. Marte’s .790 OPS (23 percent above average for his position) and elite-level defense in left field combined to quickly make him a critical piece to Pittsburgh’s success.

That’s what has made this past month so difficult. Marte suffered a hand injury while sliding into third base in mid-August, putting him on the disabled list and preventing him from swinging a bat for several weeks. His lingering ailment possibly triggered general manager Neal Huntington’s waiver trade that brought outfielder Marlon Byrd to town from the Mets.

Because of Byrd’s offensive production, the Bucs offense was largely able to tread water without Marte, although last week’s three-game lumber outage against the Padres delivered a severe blow to division title hopes. Following a difficult series loss to Cincinnati last weekend, Marte was still relegated to part-time work, but his solo homer in the ninth inning of Monday’s playoff-clinching win may have been just what he needed to realize he can still play a huge role in the Pirates’ postseason effort.

Add Monday’s emotions to his becoming a father for the first time, and it’s been quite the week for Marte. Little Smerling Marte doesn’t have a clue what his dad’s up to right now, but Starling’s return to health could be just what the Pirates need to be a legitimate threat to win the National League pennant.

With a baby on board and a breakout season under his belt, Marte’s year could hardly get much better. But a postseason surge would do just that.

UPDATE: Marte went 2 for 4 with three steals in Wednesday’s 4-2 loss to the Cubs. He also reached base via a hit-by-pitch, putting him on base three times as the Pirates’ leadoff hitter.

Tags: Andrew McCutchen Pittsburgh Pirates Starling Marte

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