Martinez getting second chance in Houston
Former top Mets prospect impressive early in Spring Training
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Maybe he can't quite run like he did when he was considered one of the Mets' top prospects a few years ago. Maybe his career has heretofore been defined more by the long list of injuries he's suffered than any memorable moments on the field.
Maybe Fernando Martinez's best days are still ahead of him, which is what the Astros -- who have the first crack at waiver claims after losing 106 games last year -- are hoping after plucking Martinez off the waiver wire and away from the Mets in January.
Martinez, still just 23 years old, is in Astros camp fighting for a job in the outfield and made a strong impression in his first Grapefruit League appearance on Sunday when he went 2-for-2 with a walk, three-run homer and four RBIs.
"I'm very excited," Martinez said Tuesday, hours before he was in the lineup at designated hitter against his former team, the Mets. "It's a new start for me right now and I'm glad to be here."
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said it was close to a no-brainer to take a flyer on Martinez.
"I was in the Dominican when he hit a big home run in the Caribbean World Series [in 2009]," Luhnow said. "He's always had the tools to be an elite player and for whatever reason, injuries, etc., he really hasn't fulfilled his potential yet. He's still very young, so when you combine what he still has from a scouting perspective, with his age and given where we were [rebuilding], it made sense for us to go ahead and take a shot."
The fact Martinez hasn't decided already to give up is a testament to his determination. His career has been sidetracked by one injury after another -- a broken hand in 2007, a major knee injury in 2009 and a hamstring strain, wrist strain and hip flexor strain in 2011. A crash-test dummy has suffered less.
When Martinez has been healthy and on the field, he's shown potential. A left-handed hitter who signed as a non-drafted free agent by the Mets in 2005, he's played in 412 career Minor League games and is a .274 hitter with 50 homers and 195 RBIs. He's appeared in 47 games at the Major League level for the Mets over the last three seasons, hitting .183 with a pair of homers, including one off Astros pitcher Bud Norris last May.
Even if Martinez doesn't crack the Opening Day roster, the Astros can send him to Triple-A Oklahoma City to begin the season, because he has one option remaining. But he's going to have to play well to win a spot on the Major League club ahead of guys like Jason Bourgeois, J.B. Shuck and Brian Bogusevic.
"He's intriguing because of his abilities," Houston manager Brad Mills said. "He used to be able to run really well and he's put together really well. He's got some real good bat speed. He's able to do a lot of things and that intrigues me more than his age. He's definitely got some ability and it's going to be interesting see him."
The Astros haven't seen Martinez in the outfield yet this spring, but Mills said he'll get plenty of chances to show what he can do.
"I think is says something about him when [Monday] we were down four runs and had two men on base and Martinez is all of a sudden pinch-hitting," Luhnow said. "[Mills] sees him as a dangerous weapon."
Martinez underwent surgery midway through the 2009 season to repair cartilage in his right knee, but that didn't stop him from behind named the Caribbean Series Most Valuable Player following that season. Still, the knee remained an issue throughout the next two seasons.
"If I stay healthy, I know I can prove myself and I can work hard and play hard because the thing is if you feel something in your body, you don't play like you have to play," Martinez said. "You're sometimes scared for your knee that you will have pain in your knee. The thing is, I feel great, feel 100 percent. I still feel I can play every day."
In fact, Martinez said this is the best he's felt since he played in the 2009 Caribbean World Series. Maybe the Astros were onto something, after all.
"I had a very good Spring Training and I was feeling great, but after that they [Mets] sent me to [Triple-A] Buffalo and the weather didn't help me," he said. "It was freezing. But I feel good now and the weather is going to be nice here in Houston, and I'm hoping my knee is healthy for the rest of the year."