Martinez vaults to prime time
By Jim Ingraham
Or two batting titles. In consecutive years. Or an MVP award. Or two MVP awards, in consecutive years.
Any one of those achievements usually would propel a player into major prospect status. Victor Martinez has done all of that. And the icing on the cake: Hes a catcher. And a switch-hitter. How much more can you fit into one package?
In the last two years, Martinez has emerged as the most decorated Indians minor leaguer in decadeseven more than Manny Ramirez.
After winning the Carolina League batting title and MVP in 2001 while hitting .329-10-57 at high Class A Kinston, Martinez repeated himself this year at Double-A Akron, where he again won the batting title and was named the Eastern Leagues MVP.
"Anytime a player wins back-to-back MVP or batting titles, it gets your attention," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro says. "Last year it was hard to ignore Victors combination of run production, batting average, on-base percentage, and runs scored, and he did it again this year."
At Akron this year Martinez hit .336-22-85. In addition to leading the EL in hitting, Martinez led the league in on-base percentage (.417), slugging (.576), and runs (84).
Thats right, a catcher leading the league in runs. How rare is that? It has never happened in the major leagues. Martinez also finished second in the league with 40 doubles and second in extra-base hits with 62.
These last two seasons are not flukes, either. Martinez career average in six minor league seasons with the Tribe is .314. Thats a lot of offense coming out of what is traditionally a defensive position.
"There are not a lot of guys, period, who can hit like Victor, much less any catchers," Akron manager Brad Komminsk says. "You dont see hitters like that a lot in the minor leagues. He was by far the best hitter in our league this year. He has really put himself on the map."
Eastern League managers also voted Martinez the leagues best defensive catcher in Baseball Americas annual Best Tools survey.
"We think Victor is a potential all-star catcher at the major league level," Shapiro says. "Being able to hit like he can hit as a catcher, that makes him a premier prospect."
It was for that reason the Indians included Martinez among their September callups. But Martinez is by no means a finished product; indeed, he may need some time at Triple-A Buffalo next year before hes ready to become an everyday catcher in Cleveland.
Still, theres certainly no player in the organizationand very few in all the minorswho have accomplished as much as the Tribes 23-year-old catcher.
"Defensively, Victors leadership, intelligence, and game calling are all very good," Shapiro says. "He could be a little better at blocking balls in the dirt, and he needs to get more consistent with his throwing mechanics, but he is legit."
Making Martinez emergence as one of the top prospects in the game even more impressive is that he is a converted shortstop. Shortly after the Indians signed him out of Venezuela, Martinez was moved to catcher. He admits he wasnt thrilled by the move.
"I almost went home," he says. "I had played shortstop all my life, and I really loved it. Ozzie Guillen was my favorite player because he was a shortstop, too. Learning to play catcher was hard: getting used to blocking balls, being aware of everything, throwing. It was a very difficult adjustment."
Indians officials said the position switch was necessary, though.
"The reason we switched him was because Victor didnt have the speed or quickness to be a middle-of-the-diamond player," Shapiro says. "We talked about moving him to third base or first base, but at that point we were thin at catcher, and we thought he could handle the switch."
Catching, of course, is always at a premium in any teams minor league system. Finding good catchers is one of the industrys biggest challenges. "I think one of the things that makes it hard to find catchers," says Indians manager Joel Skinner, a former catcher himself, "is the passion to be a catcher has to be really strong. Theres a lot that goes into being a catcher. Its a very satisfying position, but it requires a lot. You need to have good hands, to be able to throw well, have durability, and you have to be able to hit enough to warrant playing every day."
And the path to the majors can be a quick one for those who excel. "Catchers can come quick," Skinner says. "Good ones dont hang around in the minors for a long time."
Though Martinez was reluctant at first to make the switch, he did so without much trouble. "He has such soft hands. He could receive right away," Shapiro says.
Martinez says it wasnt as easy as it looked. "The hardest part for me was learning to throw to the bases," he says. "Catching is also a position that can wear you down. You really have to work hard to be a good catcher."
And Martinez has work to do, as he threw out just 24.5 percent of opposing basestealers (25 of 102). He also made 10 errors and allowed eight passed balls.
"Ive been a switch-hitter ever since I was a kid," Martinez says. "We used to play baseball in my backyard when I was growing up, and when I was seven or eight years old I just started switch-hitting on my own. It was something I just did because it was fun. It wasnt that I was thinking that it would be good to be a switch-hitter so I could play professional baseball. It was just something I did because I liked doing it."
Wherever he played on the diamond, Martinez always seemed to have a natural knack for hitting. "Ever since weve had Victor hes been a consistent bat-to-ball guy," Shapiro says. "Hes always been able to make consistent contact."
Part of that comes from Martinezs hitting mechanics, which are sound whether hes hitting lefthanded or righthanded. "Hes always been pretty strong from both sides of the plate," Shapiro says. "He has tremendous balance at the plate, and keeps the bat in the zone for a long time."
The most recent development in Martinez maturation as a hitter has been his power. In his first four minor league seasons, he didnt hit more than four home runs in a season. Then he hit 10 at Kinston last year and 22 this year at Akron.
Komminsk was Martinez manager at Kinston in 2000, when he did not hit a home run in 83 at-bats. He missed two months with rotator cuff tendinitis that year and had just two home runs in a combined 153 at-bats at Kinston and low Class A Columbus.
"That year at Kinston, he could hit, but not with the power like he does now," Komminsk says. "Hes developed into a hitter who hits the ball with authority from both sides of the plate."
Indians officials also rave about Martinez approach to hitting. "Hes always had a pretty good stroke, but as hes gotten stronger hes learned to pull the ball more," Komminsk says. "Hes also a very patient hitter. You dont see him swing at a lot of bad pitches."
Consequently, its rare to see Martinez swing and miss. He struck out 62 times at Akron this season, and in his six-year minor league career he has fanned 189 times in 1,533 at-bats.
"You dont see him getting fooled at the plate very often," Shapiro says. "Hes a very intelligent hitter."
Martinez monster year, coming off his effort at Kinston last year, gives him a shot at a big league job during spring training next year. Though he has yet to play an inning at Triple-A, his three-week September trial gave him a taste of the big leagues and gave Indians officials a chance to evaluate him.
As Martinez was emerging as the clubs top minor league prospect, though, the Indians acquired catcher Josh Bard from the Rockies in a minor trade last summer. Bard has emerged in his own right, and after having an excellent season at Triple-A Buffalo was also included in the Indians September callups.
Incumbent catcher Einar Diaz is also in the picture, so when the Indians go to training camp next spring, they will have three legitimate catching candidates. The emergence of Bard and Martinez might also lead to trade talks involving Diaz, but at least the Indians now have depth at a position that traditionally has been an organizational weakness.
While it wouldnt hurt for Martinez to play at least a half-season at Buffalo next year, Shapiro says he will keep an open mind once spring training rolls around.
"Im not going to rule anything out," he says. "Given where we are as an organization, and the rebuilding were now going through, weve got some opportunities out there for players. Those opportunities wont be given to players. They will have to be earned."
Martinez says he doesnt know whats going to happen next year. Whether he starts next year in the big leagues or doesnt get there until later, Indians officials are confident they have a special player.
"Its very hard to find good catchers these days," Shapiro says. "Its not a real glamour position, and it requires a lot of physical and mental toughness. Not everyone can handle the rigors of the position."
Indians officials believe Martinez canand be a middle-of-the-order hitter on top of it.
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