Amid whispers of health trouble, Starling Marte and Mets proceed with an optimism borne of trust

New York Mets right fielder Starling Marte (6) runs the bases after hitting a three run home run during the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Citi Field.
New York Mets right fielder Starling Marte (6) runs the bases after hitting a three run home run during the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Citi Field. / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

PORT ST. LUCIE — When Starling Marte and Buck Showalter set about building a relationship last season, each needed something from the other: Showalter was seeking a right fielder and two-hole hitter, and Marte valued predictability.

Over the course of two conversations, they established an understanding on those points.

“Last year when I got here and he told me that I was gonna play right field, I told him, ‘Fine,’” Marte told SNY on Thursday, through interpreter Alan Suriel. “Like, I'll play right field, but don't move me, because I'm trying to get comfortable in a position that I've never played before.”

Alright, Showalter thought. Fair enough. Brandon Nimmo would always be the center fielder, and Marte would always be in right.

“Then in terms of the lineup, I was kind of moving up and down and I went in [to Showalter's office] and I said, ‘Hey, look, I'm not comfortable with how I'm moving,’” Marte said. “‘If I can just stay in one spot of the lineup — my whole career I pretty much hit second or first.’ It was really important for me to kind of establish that trust and communication with both.”

If this sounds high-maintenance, Showalter received it as anything but that. He liked the clarity.

Sure, Marte’s requests limit the manager’s flexibility to, say, bat Jeff McNeil second at times. But Showalter says that when he granted Marte’s pair of wishes, Marte held up his end of the bargain by playing hard, hurt, and well. “It helps me to know what he needs,” Showalter says.

Now, the team is applying that mutual trust to the cause of preparing Marte for Opening Day. He is an extremely important component of the Mets’ offense, as evidenced by the team’s performance last September when Marte was out with a broken finger.

This spring, he is trying to return from offseason core muscle surgery. There is talk around the World Baseball Classic’s Dominican Republic team, from which Marte withdrew, that his recovery has a long way to go. “His health is really something for the Mets to watch this spring,” said one WBC source.

But at Mets camp, the style of communication already established between player, manager, front office and medical staff has allowed the group to devise a plan for Marte’s return.

Marte and Showalter are not exactly chummy; Marte does not communicate with the manager and coaching staff in English, and Showalter’s Spanish is limited. Even face-to-face conversations, which tend to be brief but pleasant, are filtered through third parties. Marte is more of a “leave me to do my thing, and I’ll produce for you player,” as one member of the organization puts it.

But because of last season, Showalter trusts that Marte knows what his body needs. And Marte trusts that Showalter and the Mets will allow him to do what he believes is best. “We respect each other,” Marte says of his manager.

On Thursday morning, Showalter said that he actually knew which day Marte would make his Grapefruit League debut this year, but did not want to publicize it in case there was a delay.

One piece of the rehab plan was impossible to hide on Thursday, when Marte took live batting practice on the field, facing Max Scherzer, Kodai Senga and Brooks Raley.

“I hadn't seen live pitching since the end of last season,” Marte said. “But being out there, my legs feel really good. And I'm gonna continue to be focused on that and be focused on the rehab to attain the strength I need.”

It was a positive step for all involved, and one that caught outsiders by surprise. But because Marte and the Mets had mapped it out ahead of time, and then followed through on their plan, it was exactly what Showalter and his right fielder expected.