Martinez, Mets' top prospect, was worth holding onto
Posted: Friday March 14, 2008 10:22AM; Updated: Friday March 14, 2008 10:22AM
Fernando Martinez could be headed for the major leagues as early as this season.
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By Walter Villa, Special to SI.com
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- He's the great Mets hope -- the prospect New York refused to trade, not even for arguably the best pitcher in the major leagues.
He's the anti-Lastings Milledge -- a young man who has earned the veterans' respect with his hard work and humble nature.
He's Fernando Martinez -- a 19-year-old outfielder the Mets protected, even when the Minnesota Twins demanded he be included in the Johan Santana deal.
Instead, the Twins settled for a quartet of prospects: outfielder Carlos Gomez and pitchers Phil Humber, Deolis Guerra and Kevin Mulvey.
The Mets got the ace they wanted in perhaps the biggest move in the majors this past offseason, but it will take years to determine which team got the better of the deal or whether New York was wise to protect Martinez in favor of one of the other prospects.
But Tony Bernazard, the Mets' Vice President of Development, is happy with the decision.
"We gave up a lot of talent," Bernazard said with a bit of a nervous laugh. "But we didn't include Fernando. And as an organization, we are happy with that."
It's noon on Wednesday. First pitch is in an hour. Martinez is not on the field, and he is not at his locker. He's sitting next to the Mets All-Star shortstop, Jose Reyes, listening to his fellow Dominican tell one side-splitting story after another.
Martinez, a 6-1, 190-pounder from Rio San Juan, Dominican Republic, is eating chicken with rice and beans, and his eyes are dancing between his cardboard plate and the charismatic Reyes, who rises from his seat to deliver each punch line.
"I listen to the veterans," said Martinez, speaking in Spanish. "They all give me advice - Reyes, (Carlos) Beltran, Pedro (Martinez) ... I try not to bother them, but I learn all the good things they do."
Bernazard said Fernando has learned plenty.
"He wants to be great," said Bernazard, looking up from his lap top as he sits in his office. "And he knows his place."
That last piece of news already puts him ahead of last year's Mets phenom, Milledge, who was traded to the Nationals in the offseason after a brief and rocky stay in New York.
Milledge, a talented outfielder and a former first-round pick, drew the ire of Mets teammates with his brash attitude and sometimes less-than-stellar work habits. One Mets player put a note in Milledge's locker in 2006 with a message that read: "Know your place, rook."
No such worries with Martinez. But the right attitude is only part of the story. Asked if Martinez is a five-tool player, Bernazard responded quickly, "Yes. His weakest tool is his speed, but he is an above-average runner. He has a very good arm, and he can go get the ball in the outfield. But the best thing about Fernando is that he can hit for power and average."
The lefty-hitting Martinez showed some of those skills on Wednesday, stroking an opposite-field, run-scoring single in a 6-2 exhibition win over the Baltimore Orioles.
Martinez signed with the Mets in 2005. He missed part of 2006 with a thumb injury, and in 2007, when he was the Double A Eastern League's youngest player at age 18, he missed half the season with a broken bone in his right hand. Both injuries were caused by his swing, which Bernazard called "freak things." Despite his youth and his ailments, he still fashioned a .271 average, 4 homers and 21 RBI in 60 games last season. In 551 career at-bats in the minors, he has hit .276 with 14 homers and 60 RBI.
"I have faith in God that I will be healthy this year," Martinez, who is expected to start the 2008 season back at Double-A Binghamton.
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By Walter Villa, Special to SI.com
Sandy Johnson, the Mets' Vice President for Scouting, watches intently from behind home plate as Martinez starts in center field on Wednesday.
Johnson said Rafael Bournigal, who is no longer with the Mets, "discovered" Martinez.
"Fernando was 15 1/2 years old, and you saw the ball jump off his bat," Johnson said. "You knew he was something special. He never swung and missed. Everything he hit was on the sweet part of the bat. And he was mature beyond his years, which got my attention right away.
"We followed him the whole summer. I went back (to the Dominican) several times to watch him. And we got to know his family - really solid people."
Martinez got a $1.3 million signing bonus - turning down offers from Texas, Seattle, San Diego and others - and used part of the money to buy his family a three-bedroom home in the Dominican. He also traded up recently to buy a BMW for himself.
But Johnson said that the money has not ruined Martinez's "unbelievable" work ethic.
"Even when he is away from the field," Johnson said, "he is doing drills for strength and hand-eye coordination."
Bernazard and Johnson agree that Martinez will be kept in center field in the minors. The Mets have a star center fielder in Beltran, meaning that Martinez will likely have to play right or left once he arrives at Shea Stadium.
"Our philosophy is that you keep a prospect in a premier position such as center field or shortstop until he arrives in the big leagues and you have to move them," Johnson said. "But Fernando has the arm to play right field. Some center fielders don't have the arm to play right, but he does."
As Johnson speaks, Martinez flashes his arm as if on cue, firing to the plate as a runner scores from second on a single, just beating the tag.
Martinez, who had just 9 at-bats in his first Mets spring training in 2007, is getting much more playing time this year, hitting .294 in 34 at-bats. With Beltran still not ready to play center field after offseason surgery on both knees, Martinez is getting a look there.
But injuries to right fielder Ryan Church, who has since returned, and left fielder Moises Alou have enabled the Mets to play Martinez on the corners as well.
Asked about his experience in right or left field prior to this spring, Martinez goes bilingual.
"Nada," he said. "Never."
Added Martinez: "To be sincere, I feel more comfortable in center. You have the batter in front of you and can see what the pitch is, judge the swing and see where it's going."
Martinez said he has no preference between right or left but did say he wants to get more experience on the corners.
Regardless of where he plays, Martinez said he is grateful he was not included in the Santana trade.
The big question now is when Martinez will arrive at Shea. Earlier this year, he caused his first controversy with the infamous New York media when he was quoted predicting he would play in the big leagues this season.
"You know what happened?" Martinez said. "I said that I want to get to New York in September (when the rosters can expand to 40 players). And then they wrote that I said I would get to New York this year. You understand?"
Perhaps the message was lost in translation, but Bernazard has his own view.
"Making it to the big leagues and arriving to stay are two different subjects," he said. "I wouldn't be surprised if by next year or the following year, he has arrived."
Regardless of when he arrives, Martinez is almost certain to arrive wearing a Mets uniform, for which he is grateful. "The truth, the real truth is that I did not want to leave here," he said. "I was prepared, because this is a business. But I wanted to stay."
Fortunately for Martinez, the Mets felt the same way.