Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fernando Martinez article

Mets prospect climbing to big leagues
Fernando Martinez a future star for the Mets?
By Michael Saflino / Baseball Analyst
Fernando Martinez could be the next great hitter to come up through the Mets Minor League system. (AP)

The most untouchable player in the Mets organization, and among the most untouchable in all of baseball, celebrated his 18th birthday last month. While most young men his age were completing high school, outfielder Fernando Martinez honed his skills as a professional in the low Minors, progressing ultimately to high A-ball and then spending the early part of the offseason as the youngest player in the Arizona Fall League (AFL).

At a minimum, he's a top 25 prospect right now. But many Minor League analysts have him higher. John Sickels, Minor League maven for and author of the well-respected Baseball Prospect Book, has him at No. 17. Keith Law of Scouts Inc. and formerly of Baseball Prospectus and the Toronto Blue Jays, has him slotted at No. 6 overall. He's the youngest player on all these lists, making his consensus ranking more remarkable because younger players are much tougher to project.

"Martinez doesn't look or carry himself like a teenager and had no trouble against Double-A and Triple-A pitchers in the AFL," Law wrote recently on "Plus glove in center as well."

Sickels says Martinez projects right now as a regular, and possibly a star. "There is still enough uncertainty about Martinez to keep him out of that very elite category. I rank Martinez at number 17, so you can see that I do like him a lot. He was very impressive to watch in the AFL." The numbers for Martinez in the AFL as well as in the Minors last year don't pop out at you. But there's more there than meets the eye; far more when you adjust for Martinez's age.

In A-ball last year, Martinez sparkled with a .333 average and .505 slugging percentage (.388 average on balls in play). Once promoted to St. Lucie, Martinez hit just .193, but he had five homers and 11 extra-base hits in his 119 at bats. His isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) was a sparkling .194. Also note that Martinez's average on balls in play (not including homers) was just .198, about 110 points below average. So, he seems to have hit in tough luck after his promotion.

Then, in the AFL, he started out 1-for-18 but then finished 21-for-69 (.304) against some of the better pitching prospects in baseball, most considerably older and with experience at higher levels of the Minor Leagues. Martinez's prospects as a future center fielder appear uncertain. Law thinks he can handle the position, but Sickels has his doubts.

"(He's a) corner outfield in the long run," says Sickels, who also maintains a blog on "A lot of scouts think he will lose speed as he gets older, hurting his range. He has enough arm strength and accuracy to play right field."

It might seem silly to worry about center field with Carlos Beltran still more than capable and not yet 30. But when Beltran's current contract expires in November 2011, Martinez will still be only 22.

Baseball America says that Martinez right now is the best hitter for average and for power in the organization. So, where might he hit in the lineup?

"Given his age I think he projects minimum 20-homer power, and possibly 30-35," Sickels says. "We need to get more data to be sure. He needs to improve his plate discipline, but given his age and his performance so far I am optimistic about his chances to fully develop his talent."

Including the AFL season, Martinez had 26 walks against 77 strikeouts last year in 398 at bats.

Martinez will likely be in the Majors before his 20th birthday, which is where things get really exciting when assessing a prospect's future.

Only a handful of players get promoted at such a young age. Even Jose Reyes beat this deadline by just one day. Dwight Gooden was 19 his entire fabulous rookie season. Ed Kranepool actually made his Mets debut at age 17 in their inaugural season. Kranepool's early struggles, famously characterized by the newspaper headline, "Is Ed Kranepool Washed Up?" which appeared when he was 19, is a cautionary tale for many observers.

Sickels says, "If the decision was up to me I would stick him in advanced Class A (St. Lucie) and leave him there all year. But what will the Mets actually do? They tend to be aggressive about promoting prospects, and they've shown a willingness to push Martinez very fast. My guess is that he'll start off in advanced A-ball but end up in Double-A fairly quickly if he does well."

Double-A is the likely acid test for Martinez this year, which would put him on track to make his big league debut sometime in 2009. But how do we measure success in Double-A for Martinez?

"Given his age, if he posts an OPS of even league average in Double-A, (Mets fans) should be very, very happy." If Martinez does arrive at Citi Field in 2009, he'll join a rather short list of phenoms.

There are a bunch of Hall of Famers on the list of boy wonders who began their careers as teenagers: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Walter Johnson, Eddie Collins, Rogers Hornsby, Harry Heilmann, Herb Pennock, Freddie Lindstrom, Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Bob Feller, Hal Newhouser, Early Wynn, Al Kaline, Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson and Robin Yount.

As was the case with Kranepool, however, an early promotion doesn't guarantee greatness and may even hinder it. Outfielders Willie Crawford, Tony Conigliaro, Rusty Staub and Bob Kennedy, first basemen Phil Cavarretta and catchers Del Crandall and Ed Kirkpatrick fell varying degrees short of projections (though Staub was an All-Star and Conigliaro suffered a terrible beaning that basically amounted to a career-ending injury). More recently, Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Ivan Rodriguez, Andrew Jones and Adrian Beltre all were regulars at age 19 (though A-Rod's first season was cut short by the 1994 strike). Clearly, players who advanced early in recent years have fared very well.

Perhaps pushing the most precocious young players into competition against older players not only in the Majors but throughout their professional careers teaches them the most important lesson: how to overcome failure.

"It think it depends on the player," Sickels says. "Some guys need to be pushed, some guys need to be coddled a bit. The Mets think that Martinez is a guy who can be pushed. And they are probably right about that. But just in terms of baseball skill, a guy like Martinez who has some problems with strike-zone judgment sometimes suffers as a hitter if he's pushed too fast before he learns to control the zone."

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