When the 2006 season started, Fernando Martinez was virtually a kid playing among teammates who comparably were men. He was not only the youngest member of the Mets then-affiliate Hagerstown Suns, but the youngest player in the South Atlantic League. Blessed with tremendous natural talent and a baseball mind beyond his years, the Mets immediately rolled the dice with Martinez and opted to have him skip all short-season levels.
The trend continued last spring when the Mets promoted him to Double-A Binghamton in his sophomore season. It was a calculated move that the majority of franchises would hesitate to make. Yet given the gifts Martinez displayed during his rookie season, the organization wanted to see what they could get out when they put the squeeze on their young outfielder who was still just 18 years old at the start of last season.
When the Eastern League season finally got underway, Martinez found it difficult to adjust to the higher level of play while battling the brutal weather elements that chopped up the B-Mets first month of play. He hit just .214 [15-for-70] in April with three extra-base hits, including one home run and six runs batted in. Despite the rocky month, Mako Oliveras, his manager in Binghamton, believed Martinez's success focuses on consistency.
"Fernando struggled at the beginning of the year. It was a new league, the cold weather, the broken playing time; I think all took its toll on him. He never really got comfortable, but that was a problem for most of our guys. We all couldn't stay sharp, but that element is what he needs to be successful. He is so young and hasn't played many games so he needs to be out there and get used to playing everyday," explained Oliveras.
When the temperature finally warmed, so did Martinez. He rebounded in May by posting a .337 batting average [35-for-104], showing greater power and a steadier hand at the plate. It turned out to be his best work of the season, and Oliveras believes it was a flash of what is coming from the top flight prospect.
"Fernando runs into his share of problems, but he's always trying out there. The more he plays, the better he's going to get. There is patience that is needed with him and patience that he needs to have to. When he got out there more often, he got a great idea of what he was doing at the plate and that's something you're looking for," said Oliveras.
"He is still learning so he may not do everything well at all times, but he's putting in all the effort and I think the player he can be is the player we saw after he struggled early on. I believe if there is a guy who can put this all together, it's him," he continued.
What was important for Martinez was finding a consistent slot for his swing. At times, he reached and chased for pitches which resulted in minimum contact. He has tremendous contact abilities but when is not stable in the batter's box that is when he runs into trouble. He worked closely with Binghamton hitting coach Nelson Silverio to get back on track.
"Fernando is like everyone says. He's a special kid that has great talent, especially at the plate. He's got a good eye, he knows exactly the pitches he wants to hit, and he's got good power to the gaps, but we worked with him on staying level and stay consistent. We want the kids to be good hitters first, the power's there. Just concentrate more on being a gap-to-gap guy, line drives instead of trying to lift the ball. If you become a good hitter, then you become a power hitter." Silverio said last May.
"He goes with the pitch so well for anyone his age than I've ever seen. His vision is really good and he can react so well and put the swing on it that he needs to," Oliveras added.
Yet Martinez once again struggled in June and his batting dived back down to April levels. He hit just .211 for the month which reverts back to Oliveras' stance on consistency which is perhaps the biggest element he continues to lack.
However, critics of Martinez are quick to point out his diminutive, or in their mind "lacking", power numbers as negative signs, making them skeptical about what kind of hitter the 18-year-old will eventually be. The buzz around Martinez is that his power is unparalleled by players his age. Coming off a ten home run performance his rookie year, he hit only four home runs last season in limited time, which in critics' minds were numbers that did not reverse the thinking that his power could wane as he moves towards the big leagues. When questioned about his outfielder's projected power, Oliveras disputed such assertions.
"He's 18, he hasn't even grown into a man yet, and right now, he's got awesome. When he learns to use his whole body, it's going to be something special. He's got really good balance and a powerful swing that should let him become a real home run threat at the big league level. I can't put a number one how many he will hit, but it should be a serious amount," the manager detailed.
Martinez is still young in the upper-half of his body, but what compensates for it with great strength his legs and explosion through his hips. Those traits are why Oliveras believes the power is on the way and what makes Martinez a dangerous, but smart hitter.
"I think because of his lower body, which he uses really well, he gets a lot of power. His legs and hips have been very effective for his swing. He's fast with his hips and gets the bat around really fast. He already has the really good vision and can react well to the ball, so getting that power from his lower body makes him a successful hitter," said Oliveras.
Martinez was making strides, gaining confidence and fit in well at the top of the Binghamton lineup but a severe hand contusion suffered in late June cut his season short. Not only did he miss the rest of the Eastern League season, but the injury removed from the roster of the All-Star Futures Game. Forced out for most of the summer was a speed bump that he took hard as he missed the rest of the regular season save three appearances in the Gulf Coast League on a rehab assignment.
"The hand injury was tough on him," said Oliveras. "He had a long way back to work on his timing, and really had to get back to work on his swing. He missed a lot of time this year which was unfortunate for him as a young kid. We didn't want to him to try to do too much, so it was a matter of making sure the timing was right to put him back out there. I think he really got better as the year went on but Fernando is so talented, so we obviously missed the rest of the season."
"We were hoping for him to stay healthy this year, but he didn't, and if he did I think he would have had a shot at Triple-A which is where he could be next year," he continued.
Martinez's season at Double-A could best be classified as a challenge. He faced a level of pitching that was totally foreign to him and was forced to learn on the job. Unfortunately for Martinez, that is something he will confront every year of his career as he will be on assignments and playing at levels far beyond his age. No matter the highs or lows, Oliveras sees a once in a generation talent.
"The way he approaches the game, at his age, makes me believe he's got six tools, not five-the way he uses his head is another very important tool. Playing in [the Eastern League] league can be tough and this is a tough league especially for someone his age, but I think it will help him out big time in his improvement," said Oliveras.
"He's still a young kid, he's got areas to improve in every part of his game, but that will come with experience. Right now, Fernando has such a bright future ahead of him. It's a matter of time, patience, and for him to take it day by day. I think he's going to be a very special ballplayer. I don't want to jinx him or anything, but I've seen a lot of players, and he's at the top of my list of young ballplayers I've ever been around. I think he has the skill, the talent and the mind to be a very solid Major League player for years," he closed.
Batting and Power: Martinez has the tools to be a special talent offensively. He has skills at the plate that are mature well beyond his age, demonstrating very solid patience while keeping his strikeout totals relatively low against talented opposing pitching staffs. He continues to work on taking walks, but boasts good pitch recognition which strengthens his ability to stay back on secondary pitches and hit to all fields. He consistently makes good contact and his gap and home run power is constantly developing. His home run totals have not met the expectations of many scouts and observers, but his good doubles power should turn into home run numbers as he gains more lift on the ball. At 18 years old, Martinez still has many years of physical growth and maturity to undergo, so that power will develop in coming years.
Base Running and Speed: Martinez is a slighty above average base runner with respectable base stealing abilities. He is still learning the finer points of swiping bases, but his fairly regular speed will prevent him from being a constant threat on the bases. His speed is conducive for the defense, but you will not see him flying around the outfield.
Defense: Martinez's defense has grown stronger the more time he has spent in the outfield. He does not have a powerful arm which will prevent him from being a starting right fielder at the Major League level. Additionally, his medium range will dissuade coaches from using him as an every day centerfielder. There are other players on the farm with bigger arms and more speed than Fernando, but he mans his position with consistency and smarts which suit him best as a left fielder when he breaks into the big leagues.
Projection: If Martinez meets all the promise the Mets believe is there, and all the expectations put on him in just two seasons, Martinez will be a truly unique player. Although he posted rather lackluster numbers last season, what he is capable of doing with the bat will make him a fixture in the heart of a Major League batting order. He figures to be a hitter who can hit for a high average, and as his body continues to fill out and thicken, he should grow into a quality power hitter. When he finally arrives on the big stage, he should be a leading mainstay on the Mets roster for many years.
ETA: 2009. Martinez was the youngest player in the Eastern League last season with Binghamton. The Mets have not shied away from testing their young stud with each passing year, and he seems to be on short path to the big leagues. He has 560 career at-bats so far, but seems primed to begin the upcoming season Triple-A where he should remain the entire season. There is chance he could make it to Shea sometime during the 2008 season, but airing on the conservative side and considering his missed time last season, 2009 would be fit his current progression.
Until the beginning of the season, each week Scout.com will preview a Mets prospect that will have a good chance to play with the Zephyrs in 2008.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.