SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — When injuries depleted the Arizona outfield last season, middle infielder Ketel Marte volunteered to be an interim option.
The Diamondbacks are taking him up on that offer this year.
Marte will move from second base to center field this season as the Diamondbacks reconfigure following the loss of free agent center fielder A.J. Pollock and a perceived dearth of free agents or trade options to replace him.
“He feels like he can do anything in this game, and I love that,” Arizona manager Torey Lovullo said.
“Last year when A.J. went down, he said, ‘I’ll be the best center fielder. If you need somebody, put me out there.’ That was our starting point with him this year.”
Marte made all of his 132 starts in the middle infield in 2018, 105 at second base, and he also reached career highs in virtually every offensive category after signing a five-year, $24 million contract last March.
He led the NL with 12 triples and had 26 doubles, 14 homers and 59 RBIs in his first full season.
While Marte still will play infield in some lineup configurations this season, he has embraced the move to center.
“I want to do whatever is best for the team,” Marte said.
Marte played two games in center field with Seattle as a rookie in 2015, and Arizona believes his athleticism and aptitude will help lessen the inevitable learning curve.
By his request, Marte has done most of his early work this spring at second base to lock down that spot before beginning the outfield immersion. He also is the only backup shortstop on the roster.
“From an instincts standpoint, from an intelligence standpoint, from a raw ability standpoint, athleticism and speed . he has those things,” general manager Mike Hazen said, adding that “of course” there will be bumps along the way.
“It’s a hard position to play. There are the areas that reps, only reps, live reps, are going to replicate.”
Seattle’s Dee Gordon made the same transition from second base to center field in 2018 before returning to second following Robinson Cano’s 80-game suspension, and he acknowledged it was not easy.
“It’s big-league hitters hitting the ball as hard as they can and you’ve never played that spot before,” Gordon said. “And if you drop it, they have two or three bases. That’s the hard part. If the ball went past me at second base, that’s just a base hit.”
Marte’s shift also will create a different infield dynamic, with free agent Wilmer Flores taking over at second. Marte and shortstop Nick Ahmed were key parts of a defense that “saved” an NL-high 122 runs over the average defense last season, according to a baseballreference.com metric.
But with Pollock and Paul Goldschmidt gone from a team that scored only 693 runs a year ago, 119 fewer than they had in 2017, finding a way to create more scoring was another factor in Marte’s position shift. Flores has 61 homers as a semi-regular in his last four seasons with the Mets.
“Offense was probably an area where we ended up being a little deficient last year overall, so we have made a couple of moves where hopefully we can address some of that,” Hazen said. “Obviously, the loss of Goldy and A.J. is going to contribute as well, but as far as the defensive alignment goes, even though we might be sacrificing a little bit of defense, we might be better suited offensively.”
Marte made a slight swing adjustment after a slow start last season and finished strong, hitting .296 with a .841 OPS after the All-Star break. A switch-hitter, he hit .321 with nine homers against lefties last season.