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Noelvi Marte suspension: Three questions after one of MLB’s most promising prospects tests positive for PEDs

The Cincinnati Reds received unfortunate news on Friday, as top prospect and prospective starting third baseman Noelvi Marte was suspended for 80 games by Major League Baseball after he tested positive for a banned substance. Marte will be permitted to complete spring training. His suspension will then begin on Opening Day, and he’ll be eligible to return on June 26, when the Reds play their 81st game of the year.

Marte’s suspension is a disappointing development in multiple respects. It stains his name in the public realm; it throws Cincinnati’s depth chart into disarray with less than three weeks to go until Opening Day; and it harms the Reds’ chances of making the playoffs in a full season for the first time since 2013. (The Reds did make the expanded postseason in 2020, losing in two games to the Atlanta Braves.)

Below, CBS Sports has provided additional perspective on analysis on each of those matters. Scroll slowly with us, won’t you?

1. What does this mean for Marte?

Whenever a player tests positive for a performance-enhancing substance, there’s a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the topic. Did the player intentionally use the substance? If so, was this their first attempt at doing so? And just what did they think it would do for them? There’s also the matter of how much these substances would even aid performance. The truth is we don’t have the answers to any of those questions.

What we do have is the knowledge that this kind of suspension tends to stick with a player, coloring the public’s perception of their game. That’s a bummer in this case because Marte looked like a potential young star in the making. CBS Sports recently ranked him as the 14th-best prospect in the minors. Here’s what we wrote at the time:

CBS Sports has and will continue to be higher on Marte than most shops because of the notion that it’s easier to teach a batter how to lift the ball than it is to teach him how to strike the ball with authority. Predictably, Marte can really sting the ball. His 115.6 mph maximum exit velocity placed him in a virtual tie with Bryce Harper and Pete Alonso. The catch is that the only qualified batter with a lower average launch angle than Marte’s 1.9 degrees was Pirates utility player Ji Hwan Bae. There are two paths forward for him: either he learns to lift the ball, or he tries to emulate the likes of Yandy Díaz, William Contreras, and Christian Yelich — all of whom had great years with average launch angles below six degrees. The former scenario is more intriguing, and could result in him launching 30-plus home runs a pop. The latter path, meanwhile, could lead to a perfectly fine career, too. Either way, we believe.

Marte is now in a pickle. If he plays well upon his return, onlookers will wonder if he’s benefitting from additional help. If he scuffles, those same individuals will question how much of his pedigree was the product of a chemical mirage. Again, it’s too bad in any case, and especially when it’s a player at the onset of their big-league career. Alas, that’s how things go when a player fails a test, no matter the preceding motivation. 

2. And the Reds’ depth chart?

As noted previously, Marte had been slotted in as the starting third baseman. If there’s a sliver of good news for the Reds, it’s that they didn’t do the expected thing this offseason, trading away some of their infield depth for pitching. Rather, the Reds kept Jonathan India, Christian Encarnacion-Strand, Spencer Steer, and others. They even added another body to their count, signing Jeimer Candelario. (The Reds did decline their club option on franchise mainstay Joey Votto, though he was limited to first base.)

If we had to guess at how the Reds will rearrange their depth chart, we would peg Candelario as the new starting third baseman since he’s a better defender there than either Steer or Encarnacion-Strand. That would leave Steer in the outfield, Encarnacion-Strand at the cold corner, and India in a timeshare with designated hitter Jake Fraley. (Encarnacion-Strand, who has the kind of power upside that is more befitting of a first baseman, could also factor into the DH mix.)

It’s possible that manager David Bell sees things differently, but that’s our read based on the approach he took late last season, albeit with its own set of circumstances. Marte was available at the time; Candelario was with the Chicago Cubs; and India was slotted in as the everyday second baseman during Matt McLain‘s injury-related absence. We’ll see how much, if at all, Bell changes his approach heading into the new season. 

3. How does it impact the Reds’ playoff chances?

The Reds are fortunate in the sense that they have decent options at their disposal to cover for those first 80 games. But let’s face it: they’re a worse team today than they looked to be before the Marte suspension was issued; such is life whenever a team has to rearrange their depth pieces to cover for losing a starting player.

Even if Marte didn’t perform as well this season as he did during his cameo last year, when he posted a 120 OPS+ across 35 games, he had the kind of upside that this Reds roster needs. Most projection systems have them winning somewhere around 80 games, putting them third or fourth in a tight National League Central picture. The easiest way to close that gap is to have a promising young player take a step forward. Marte may still do that once he returns, but the effect will be muted by his missed time.

Writing that Marte’s suspension could cost the Reds a playoff spot would normally seem overdramatic. We’ll have to see how things play out on the field, but the reality is that the Reds could be locked in a neck-and-neck race all summer long — one that makes every win and every run pulse with greater significance. The Reds being without one of their best young players for half the season certainly won’t help their cause. And, unlike with an ill-timed injury, the blame for this one falls on the player in question.

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