Sunday, March 23, 2014

Did the Astros rush J.D. Martinez?

With their 20th Round pick in the 2009 draft, the Astros selected 21-year old J.D. Martinez out of Nova Southeastern University. Martinez had just posted one of the best seasons in Nova Southeastern's history, hitting .428 with 15 HRs and is still the career home run leader in program history.

So the Astros sent him to Greeneville, which is typically reserved for high-profile high school prospects, or lower-round college prospects. In 19 games (83 PAs) Martinez hit .403/.446/.740 with 15 of his 31 hits going for extra-bases. Since a 1.186 OPS is - um - pretty good, the Astros promoted him on July 12 to Tri-City, where he won the NYPL batting title, hitting .326/.380/.540 in 53 games (208 PAs). Jose Altuve hit .250/.337/.316 in 21 games for the ValleyCats

In his first professional season, he hit .348/.399/.598 with 24 doubles, three triples, and 12 homers. The Troy Record's Ed Weaver listed Martinez (as well as Dallas Keuchel and Erik Castro) as the only players on the 27-48* ValleyCats to be considered legitimate prospects, and Jonathan Mayo put him in the "sleeper" prospect category in his post-season wrap-up.

*Tied for the worst record in the NYPL

Martinez opened the 2010 season in Low-A Lexington, a logical progression from having won the batting title in the New York-Penn League. He told MiLB in May, "I felt like I had something to prove last year because I was drafted late. I know I have to continue to put up numbers to become a prospect in the Astros' eyes." When the article ran, he was hitting .348/.396/.539, and would be one of four Legends to make the SAL All-Star Team. In June 2010, Martinez's OPS was 299 points above league-average.

At the end of June, Zachary Levine noted that Martinez was likely to spend the entire season at Lexington, because there was no point to sending him to Lancaster and there wasn't any room in a Corpus outfield that held J.B. Shuck, T.J. Steele, and Jon Gaston. By mid-July, Martinez was leading the SAL in BA, OBP, SLG, OPS (of course), runs, hits, doubles, and his 120 hits were 2nd in all of minor-league baseball. And he was two years older than the average SAL player. So on July 16, Martinez was promoted to Double-A Corpus, skipping Lancaster altogether.

In 88 games for the Legends, Martinez hit .362/.433/.598 with 31 doubles, three triples, and 15 home runs. Ricky Bennett said of Martinez, "He had nothing left to prove."

By mid-August Martinez was hitting .326/.404/.489 for Corpus, leading manager Wes Clements to say, "He's made it known that he belongs here. Obviously, he's young in the game, so I can't see him not getting better. He's pretty good right now."

Martinez had a rough start to his season in Corpus, hitting .262/.318/.361 in his first 16 games, but rebounded over the final five weeks of the season to finish with a .302/.357/.407 line in 50 games (207 PAs). John Sickels' rated him as a sleeper prospect and that it was "hard to believe he lasted until the 20th Round."

Despite getting promoted in mid-July, Martinez still won the South Atlantic League MVP, and Levine named him as the Astros system's top offensive player for 2010 (Jordan Lyles was his Top Pitcher). The Astros agreed and named Martinez and Lyles as their players of the year, and Ed Wade said both seemed destined to reach Houston in the "not-too-distant future."

In that off-season Martinez started to get some more mainstream love. John Sickels named Martinez as the 5th-best Astros prospect (behind Lyles, DeShields, Foltynewicz, and Austin Wates). The Hardball Times put him at #9 in the system (they wrote, "his displayed home run power is pushing Martinez up prospect boards, but his flat swing makes me think it won't show at higher levels."). Keith Law ranked Martinez #10 (Ariel Ovando was #3). Jonathan Mayo ranked Martinez at #8 but said that, even if Martinez started 2011 at Double-A, he could see Houston by the end of the season.

Martinez was invited to Major League Spring Training, and was reassigned to minor-league camp in mid-March. But Brad Mills raved about Martinez's hitting skills saying, "When he hits a ball, it stays hit." At the end of Spring Training, Mills said "He puts good at-bats together and consistently squares the ball up, he is extremely impressive."

And so Martinez began the 2011 season back in Double-A Corpus. Tal Smith told Richard Justice that it wasn't a reflection of his development, "It's that our system is better. We're to the point where we can go get prospects when we're ready." In 22 April games, Martinez hit .341/.394/.553.

The only knock on Martinez was his defense (and the recurring issues with his knees). He told MiLB in May that he had gotten better defensively. "I'm not a five-tool guy, few are, but in no way am I going to drop balls out there. The Astros know I can play defense, and I've been working...on my routes to fly balls. I'm confident I can get to balls now, and the Astros have noticed I've improved out there."

By mid-June 2011, Martinez was a Texas League All-Star. On July 29, Martinez was hitting .338/.414/.546 with 55K:42BB in 370 PAs, helped by a July in which he hit .380/.473/.717, with seven homers, 13 strikeouts and 15 walks.

When Hunter Pence was traded to the Phillies for Jarred Cosart, Jon Singleton, Josh Zeid, and Domingo Santana, an outfield spot was available. The Astros had J.B. Shuck, Luis Durango, Brian Bogusevic, and Collin DeLome available at Oklahoma City. Instead, the Astros promoted 23-year old J.D. Martinez straight from Double-A.

On August 10, Baseball America's John Manuel said that he liked Martinez because he can not only hit, but hit for power: "It wouldn't shock me if he wound up approximating Hunter Pence's offensive numbers other than (stolen bases), and he plays with similar energy. He doesn't run like Pence though, and isn't as well-rounded of a player, but I think he's the best of the young position players the Astros have called up so far."

Remember when the Hardball Times questioned Martinez's swing? Larry Dierker agreed: "Watching him, I can't explain it. Martinez has an odd stutter step in his swing. And he takes it when the pitcher starts his delivery - too soon. What's more, he holds his hands too far from his right shoulder, which elongates his swing. He shouldn't be able to hit like that. But I guess nobody told him."

In 53 games for Houston in 2011, Martinez ended with a .274/.319/.423 slash line. Amazingly, the six home runs that he hit made him 6th on the team. In 2012 Martinez made the Opening Day roster...and struggled, hitting .241/.311/.375 and getting demoted to OKC in August. Martinez played in 86 games in 2013 and hit .250/.272/.378.

Which I think leads us to the main point. Martinez had proven at every level that, not only could he hit, he could knock the cover off the ball. But there were questions about his swing all the way back in 2010. Larry Dierker couldn't figure out how Martinez was actually hitting the ball. The Astros' development team - and remember he was in the minors before the current regime - had every opportunity to "fix" his swing, but why would they? Martinez's success at the plate spoke for itself. The patience Martinez showed at the plate in the minors (career .395 OBP) evaporated in Houston. He drew just 50 walks in 749 PAs between 2012 and 2013. So did his power.

When we talk about the Astros rushing players to the big leagues, it's easy to point to Lyles, Altuve, and Martinez as examples of that possibly being the case, but it seems as though it was the organizational philosophy at the time. The front office bringing up prospects from 2010-2012 was a way to show the fanbase that hope was on the horizon and, possibly, a strategy for trying to keep their jobs. Still, you reward success at the minor-league level and, like the Astros showed by having Martinez skip High-A, what else did he have to prove in the minors?

You're not going to accuse this front office of rushing prospects (see: Springer, George). But it seems like criticizing the team for rushing players is more of an indictment that those players weren't developed for major-league success in the first place.