The first week of Spring Training involves a number of important rituals, especially among the reporters covering our fair team. There’s roll call (hey look, Collin McHugh is here); pictures and videos of pitchers “throwing a bullpen” (don’t worry, they actually throw a baseball in the bullpen), and reports on what the players did in their off-season (Josh Reddick went to Hawaii).
On Saturday, we were treated to two of the classics of the early in Spring Training genre, in the same article. We got a “best shape of his life” and “change in his mechanics/swing” double about one of the most important players in Astros camp this season--Francis Martes.
Saturday’s articles first discussed how Martes worked to improve his body over the off-season. Brian McTaggart noted that “[t]he right-hander shed a few pounds in the offseason.” Jake Kaplan, now of The Athletic (subscription required), reported that Martes “ checked into camp weighing 243 pounds, five pounds less than last year, and has added muscle.” Hunter Atkins at the Chronicle was more poetic, saying Martes “arrived with his husky build trimmed” thanks to “the agony of more core exercises.”
Then the reporters discussed how Martes had worked over the off season to improve his pitching mechanics. Martes is apparently “slowing down his delivery” (McTaggart), and working to “maintain a rhythm that has been inconsistent” (Kaplan), resulting in “his fastball making the alarming sound of a shotgun blast” and “better drop on his changeup” (Atkins).
A.J Hinch said positive things--”"He's throwing as hard as anybody in camp right now, which is mostly a good sign. It's still really early. He came very prepared, he came slimmed down a little bit, his delivery is a little bit better. All things we expected, but it's nice to see in person.”
The early reports on Martes sound like cliche.But even if we take these early reports with a grain of salt--or even a whole shaker’s worth--all Astro fans should regard these reports as encouraging.
Martes is a very important player on this roster. His importance is clearly not reflected by the fact that he did not make the roster for any of the three playoffs last season. Or that he is currently penciled in to start the season in Fresno and will have to wait for an injury (or possibly multiple injuries) before we see him in MInute Maid Park this season.
But Martes’s importance is not to the 2018 Astros. That is not to say that he cannot play an important role in 2018, either as a starter when injuries creep up and/or management uses the 10-day DL to rest starting pitchers, or out of the Astros bullpen. But it is likely that Martes’s contributions to the 2018 team will not meaningfully affect the team’s 2018 place in the standings.
Martes’s importance has more to do with the 2019 season, and beyond. With free agency looming after this season for Keuchel and Morton, and after next season for Verlander and Cole, the Astros rotation is about to get very expensive or very different. Recent evidence indicates that there is a limit on future payrolls. So while the Astros could re-sign their current pitchers are find other ones on the free agent market, management’s preferred method is for their young (read: cost-controlled) pitchers to develop.
Astros fans can currently project Forrest Whitley to take one of those open spots, but additional young rotation members are wanted. Martes represents the best bet to take a spot after Whitley.
Martes proved to be a frustrating player at the big league level in 2017. His command was frustrating, leading to Martes walking 5.1 batters per 9 innings pitched, a walk ratio of 12.5). Those walks led to a 5.80 ERA. But there was still promise in Martes’s line. He struck out 69 batters in 54 ⅓ IP, demonstrating the velocity and movement that had made Martes a top-20 prospect for both Baseball America and MLB.com.
Fangraphs analyzed recently prospects such as Martes who have graduated (i.e. are no longer rookie eligible). Their prospect team ranked his Present Value at a below average 40, but future value at an above average 55, which projects to a 3rd or 4th starter. This is the largest spread among the prospects they listed (tied with Amed Rosario of the Mets). This ranking demonstrates both the disappointment and the promise displayed by the flame-throwing 22 year-old.
The positive early reviews on Martes are a good sign for multiple reasons. That Martes took better care of his body and implemented a throwing program this winter in the Dominican Republic demonstrates greater maturity and commitment to his career. It provides reason to think that Martes has not yet reached his potential. The move to a slower delivery is designed to cut down on the walks that plagued him in 2017. And reports of his improved performance signal hope to Astros fans trying to figure out what the team will look like 3 or 4 years from now. And they signal that the window that the Astros opened in 2017 may continue to stay open for years to come.