On Thursday, the Rays made quite a few minor moves, agreeing to minor league deals with catcher Craig Albernaz and outfielder Jason Bourgeois and inviting relievers Marquis Fleming, Kirby Yates, and Liberatore along with catcher Mark Thomas to big league camp. Those are all mildly interesting (Albernaz and Bouregoise’s signings were reported previously), but the most interesting move was that the Rays agreed to a minor league contract with one other player, right-hander J.D. Martin. Martin, who turned 30 earlier this month, was a supplemental first round pick by the Indians back in 2001 and made 24 starts with the Nationals between 2009 and 2010, posting a solid 4.32 ERA. He may very well be another astute pickup by the Rays that leads to a positive impact for their major league team.
J.D. Martin has never thrown very hard. Back when the Indians selected him 35th overall in the 2001 MLB Draft, that was because he was a lean 6’4″, 160 right-hander with room to grow. Even though Martin has filled out to 6’4″, 220, the velocity still never came as Tommy John Surgery and other arm problems took it away. His fastball peaked at 90-91 MPH for a time, but almost always he has stayed in the 87-88 MPH range. Despite that, he did just about nothing but pitch well the first 10 years of his professional baseball career. In his pro debut at Rookie-level Burlington, he was untouchable, going 5-1 with a 1.38 ERA, striking out 72 while walking just 11 in 10 starts and 45.2 innings pitched. Martin’s hype from his pro debut got out of hand, but in his first full pro season at Low-A Columbus, he continued to impress, going 14-5 with a 3.90 ERA, an 8.5 K/9, a 3.5 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 26 starts, 1 relief appearance, and 138.1 innings pitched. It was the next year, though, that his elbow first became an issue, and two years later he had Tommy John Surgery.
Martin continued to pitch well when healthy, managing a 2.03 ERA and a 40-5 strikeout to walk ratio in 13 starts and a relief appearance in 2006, but injuries knocked out most of his 2007 season, prompting the Indians to move him to the bullpen for 2008. Even after Martin was dominant between Double-A and Triple-A that year, going 12-3 with a 7.9 K/9, a 2.1 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 26 relief appearances, 9 starts, and 89.2 innings pitched, the Indians let him leave as a free agent. After a great season at Triple-A for the Nationals the next season, he made his big league debut in July and was decent, going 5-4 with a 4.44 ERA (96 ERA+), a 4.3 K/9, a 2.8 BB/9, and a 1.6 HR/9 in 15 starts and 77 innings pitched. He was back in the minors to begin 2010 but pitched fine when he returned, going just 1-5 but with a 4.13 ERA, a 5.8 K/9, a 2.1 BB/9, and a 1.7 HR/9 in 9 starts and 48 innings pitched, but his season ended in July from a herniated disk in his back. Since then, Martin has struggled, managing just a 3.93 ERA at Triple-A in 2011 before slipping to just a 5.95 ERA at Triple-A for the Marlins in 2012 (although his FIP was a solid 4.18).
Martin’s specialty is control. He has a 2.0 BB/9 in 1022.2 minor league innings and a 2.5 mark in 125 MLB innings, and at Triple-A, he’s been as low as 1.3 per 9 innings. However, his career 7.0 K/9 in the minors drops to 6.1 at Triple-A and just 4.9 in the majors, and that’s not something so surprising- it’s awfully hard to miss bats with a fastball in the 87-89 MPH range. But when healthy, Martin can be a solid pitcher. He may throw his fastball at just 87-88 MPH most of the time, but he throws it for strikes like there’s no tomorrow and has solid command of the pitch. The issue is that solid command is not enough at higher levels when your fastball is that soft. However, his other pitches give him the ability to move beyond that. He gets his swings and misses on a big mid-70′s overhand curveball with big 12-to-6 action that works well against batters from both sides and he also throws a solid cutter and a usable changeup that has shown promise in the past (something the Rays will undoubtedly work with him on considering it’s their organizational strength). If Martin can stay healthy, he has the arsenal to be a solid starter in the back of a major league rotation or at least a useful middle reliever. Martin faces an uphill batter to return to the big leagues, let alone stay there. However, he has the ability to be more than just Triple-A fodder and could conceivably make an impact in the big leagues for the Rays next season.
It sounds crazy to say that a 30 year old pitcher with a fastball that never touches 90 MPH is an upside play, but Martin is exactly that. Until the past two years, he was a solid pitcher everywhere he went, including the major leagues, and with better health and a little refinement to his secondary pitches, he could play himself into a major league role. The Rays are known for looking for undervalues assets, and Martin certainly qualifies- who could think that a 30 year old with injury issues and below-average fastball velocity could make an impact in the major leagues? Maybe Martin amounts to nothing whether through more injury issues or simply poor performance, but at no risk to them at all, the Rays have found a pitcher with the ability to contribute for them in 2013.