Jose Martinez is having a fantastic season with the St. Louis Cardinals, hitting .318/.381/.545 with 13 home runs in 94 games. The breakout season at age 29 has some calling him the next J.D. Martinez, as Dave Cameron did this week at Fangraphs. If the name sounds familiar, it should. Martinez was in the Royals organization as recently as last year. They traded him to the Cardinals last May for cash considerations.
How could the Royals be so foolish to give away a slugger with a higher wRC+ than anyone on Kansas City’s roster, including Eric Hosmer? Is this another case of the Royals misjudging their own talent? Well, not quite.
The Royals were actually Martinez’s third MLB organization. He was signed out of Venezuela by the White Sox, then bounced to the Braves before he fell out of affiliated baseball. He was playing with the Rockford Aviators of the independent Frontier League when the Royals signed him as a minor league free agent in 2015.
Martinez won the Pacific Coast League batting title that year, hitting .384, but with little power, particularly for a man his size. Standing at 6’7’’, Martinez towered over most pitchers, but had home run totals more befitting of a diminutive infielder. If you pro-rate all of his minor league home runs over 162 games, Martinez would hit just 11 home runs. He hit just 21 home runs in 222 games in AAA, and that’s in the Pacific Coast League, where there are plenty of homer-happy ballparks.
So Martinez was playing power positions (left field, right field, and first base) without power. Defensively he was below-average. He had decent walk rates, and wasn’t a total sloth on the basepaths, but he was also 26 years old in 2015. The Pacific Coast League leaderboard is littered with players in their late 20s who were has-beens, never-weres, guys who could rip a fastball from a 21-year old kid, but couldn’t hit an ungodly slider from a MLB All-Star.
Still, his insanely high batting average made him intriguing. Batting average is a notoriously inconsistent metric, with luck on balls put in play being a large factor. Martinez was not a September call up that year, but the Royals did add him to the 40-man roster that winter to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.
A window of opportunity cracked open for Martinez the following spring. The Royals allowed right fielder Alex Rios to depart, hoping to use Jarrod Dyson in the outfield. When Dyson went down with an oblique injury to begin the year, the Royals had an opening. Martinez was competing with Paulo Orlando, Reymond Fuentes, and Travis Snider for a roster spot. Martinez hit just .240 with one extra-base hit in 25 plate appearances in spring training, and lost the job to Orlando and Fuentes. He was assigned to Omaha, and his numbers were much more pedestrian.
By May, he was hitting .298/.356/.433. The Royals had Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Paulo Orlando (hitting well over .300), and Jarrod Dyson returning. In Omaha, the outfield was filled with Fuentes, Snider, Brett Eibner, Jorge Bonifacio, and Hunter Dozier, with Whit Merrifield and Orlando Calixte also getting some outfield time. Balbino Fuenmayor was at first base. Martinez was caught in a numbers game.
Our post on the Martinez trade did not even merit a fully-written article. Most commenters reacted with nothing more than a shrug, although Daloath at least stood up for Jose’s potential. Then there is this.
That proved to be quite prophetic. Martinez developed power in St. Louis, which Cameron notes, is not unusual for hitters with a large frame to do later in their careers. Martinez says his coaches have always told him to “hit with more leverage and elevate the ball”. However he has always had high ground ball rates in the minors. This past off-season he worked with Marlins players Miguel Rojas and Martin Prado in Miami, and adjusted his swing. His ground ball rates have fallen to below league-average, and the power has come.
So should we blame the Royals for letting Martinez slip through their fingers? Well, yes and no. No one, probably not even the Cardinals, knew Martinez was going to hit as well as he has this year. Late bloomers tend to the be the exception, rather than the rule, and for every Jose Martinez there are a dozen Balbino Fuenmayors (remember him?) that never pan out.
But there is something to be said about player development and giving players a chance. The St. Louis Cardinals have a long track record of having non-prospect players come up from the minor leagues and become very productive players. Tommy Pham, Matt Carpenter, Jon Jay, Matt Adams, David Freese, and Allen Craig were all unheralded prospects who came up and contributed for a few seasons for the Cardinals.
The Royals are a small market club who has been spending a lot of money on mediocre free agents. Millions have been spent on Omar Infante, Chris Young, Joakim Soria, Alex Rios, Jason Hammel, Brandon Moss, and Travis Wood in recent years. The Royals might have been better off giving those jobs to players in the farm system.
Even with a thin system, the Royals have found production from homegrown players like Jorge Bonifacio, Whit Merrifield, and Jake Junis. Sure, sometimes you end up with an Onelki Garcia-type start. But even if many of these players don’t pan out, you can ship them back to the minors and try someone else, without the obligation of a multi-million dollar contract.
Jose Martinez is long gone, and while you can’t blame the Royals for not giving him more of a shot, perhaps his story will open more doors for minor leaguers down the road.