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Martinez vaults to prime time

By Jim Ingraham
September 30, 2002

Victor Martinez
Photo: Rich Abel
CLEVELAND–When it comes to player development, there aren’t many better attention getters than a player winning a batting title.

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: He’s 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 decades–even 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 League’s 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 Victor’s 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).

That’s 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. That’s 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 don’t 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 league’s best defensive catcher in Baseball America’s 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 he’s ready to become an everyday catcher in Cleveland.

Still, there’s certainly no player in the organization–and very few in all the minors–who have accomplished as much as the Tribe’s 23-year-old catcher.

"Defensively, Victor’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 team’s minor league system. Finding good catchers is one of the industry’s 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. There’s a lot that goes into being a catcher. It’s 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 don’t 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 wasn’t 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.

Victor Martinez
Photo: Rich Abel
He’s polished offensively, though. He spent his first two years in the organization, 1997 and 1998, playing in the Rookie-level Venezuelan Summer League, where in his first year he hit .344. Unlike many players who become switch-hitters after they’ve begun their careers, Martinez was a switch-hitter long before he signed his first pro contract.

"I’ve 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 wasn’t 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 we’ve had Victor he’s been a consistent bat-to-ball guy," Shapiro says. "He’s always been able to make consistent contact."

Part of that comes from Martinez’s hitting mechanics, which are sound whether he’s hitting lefthanded or righthanded. "He’s 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 didn’t 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. "He’s 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. "He’s always had a pretty good stroke, but as he’s gotten stronger he’s learned to pull the ball more," Komminsk says. "He’s also a very patient hitter. You don’t see him swing at a lot of bad pitches."

Consequently, it’s 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 don’t see him getting fooled at the plate very often," Shapiro says. "He’s 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 club’s 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 wouldn’t 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.

"I’m not going to rule anything out," he says. "Given where we are as an organization, and the rebuilding we’re now going through, we’ve got some opportunities out there for players. Those opportunities won’t be given to players. They will have to be earned."

Martinez says he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next year. Whether he starts next year in the big leagues or doesn’t get there until later, Indians officials are confident they have a special player.

"It’s very hard to find good catchers these days," Shapiro says. "It’s 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 can–and be a middle-of-the-order hitter on top of it.

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