It seems intuitive that the best players in American professional baseball should be playing in the major leagues–but we know that’s not the case. Unlike football or basketball, baseball is built around an organizational system consisting of not just the major league teams but numerous minor league affiliates. Prospects develop in the minor leagues and only come up to the major leagues based on readiness and team need. With that model in mind, many teams have a top prospect or two that is better than several players on their major league roster, but a variety of factors keep them in the minor leagues. Wil Myers stayed in the minor leagues this year until June because the Rays didn’t have an obvious spot for him to start and because they wanted him to work on his plate discipline, not to mention the money they were saving by keeping him down. He was more talented than much of the Rays’ roster, but it didn’t matter because the Rays had plenty of incentive to keep him at Triple-A. But then the Super Two deadline passed, meaning the Rays’ money had already been saved, the Rays figured out a way to get Myers in their lineup on an everyday basis, and the Rays determined that he was ready. The Rays’ motives to keep Myers down no longer applied, and then he finally received his long-awaited call-up to the major leagues. That’s the way the system is supposed to work–the talented players don’t get called up immediately, but if they just wait a little while it all works out. But how do we make sense of the case of JD Martin?
JD Martin was in the major leagues and he was doing pretty well. In 24 starts with the Washington Nationals in 2009 and 2010, Martin went 6-9 with a 4.32 ERA, striking out 68 while walking 35 in 125 innings pitched. He certainly wasn’t dominant, striking out just 4.9 batters per 9 innings and allowing a few too many hits and home runs, but he limited the walks and kept the Nationals in most of his starts. With a fastball hitting just the high-80′s, Martin’s stuff didn’t stand out, but between a solid three-pitch mix and excellent command of his pitches, Martin showed the ability to be at least a solid back-of-the-rotation or middle reliever. However, a back injury ended Martin’s 2010 season in July, and he hasn’t appeared in the major leagues since. The Nationals overlooked him despite a solid season in 2011, even as they started Livan Hernandez for 29 games and a washed-up Chien-Ming Wang for 11 more. The Marlins made him their last cut from their 2012 roster, and a demoralized Martin had a horrific season. And now this year, Martin has been pitching his best baseball in years, going 12-4 with a 2.82 ERA and an 87-20 strikeout to walk ratio in 20 starts and 121.1 innings pitched. Yet there’s no talk of the Rays calling him up and no murmurs of another starting pitching-deprived team thinking about acquiring him. The question is simple: why?
JD Martin wasn’t always a Quad-A player stuck in Triple-A with no end in sight. Back in 2001, he was the star pitcher of Sherman E. Burroughs High School in the small town of Ridgecrest, California, and everyone watching him knew he was something special. Martin blew away the competition with a fastball hitting as high as 93 MPH, a big-breaking 12-to-6 curveball, and a developing changeup. And it wasn’t just his stuff that stood out, but his ability to command it. Martin was able to locate all three of his pitches like no one in the town had ever seen before, prompting opposing hitters to wonder what they could do and Ridgecrest residents to wonder whether they were seeing something special. The residents soon got their answer as scouts began to fill the stands at all of JD’s games until their were more scouts than locals at times. Martin’s high school legend culminated with the Cleveland Indians selecting him with the 35th overall selection in the 2001 MLB Draft.
It would be months before Martin’s name stopped reverberating through the streets of Ridgecrest. Martin was the talk of the town, with his name mentioned everywhere from cafes to street corners to local newspapers and radio stations. Every kid playing Little League in Ridgecrest wished they could be like JD Martin. In the words of Ridgecrest resident Tom Annos, “I wouldn’t hesitate to say he became a hometown hero to all of the younger ballplayers in the community.” Martin only made their excitement more emphatic when he dominated in his professional debut at Rookie Ball, going 5-1 with a 1.38 ERA and 72 strikeouts against just 11 walks in 10 starts and 45.2 innings pitched.
Martin’s smooth sailing stopped there. His ERA went up each of the next three seasons, going from 3.90 to 4.27 to 4.60, but that was only the start of his troubles as he underwent Tommy John Surgery in 2005. The people of Ridgecrest had seen firsthand how hard-working Martin was and were confident that he would be fine. But 2006 and 2007 saw Martin throw just 86.2 innings combined before the Indians moved him to relief in 2008 and gave up on him a year later. The pitcher bristling with potential and only a matter of time away from taking the major leagues by storm was gone, replaced with an injury-prone 25 year old struggling to hang on. But the next year, everything changed. Martin signed with the Washington Nationals organization and immediately began to impress, managing a 2.66 ERA, a 6.4 K/9, a 1.0 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 15 starts and 88 innings pitched for their Triple-A Syracuse affiliate. And on July 20th, Martin was called up to make his major league debut, with 20 of Martin’s friends and family members flying to Washington D.C. to see Martin pitch and hundreds more Ridgecrest residents watching wherever they could. For Martin’s father John C. Martin, it was an emotional moment.
I’ll never forget that moment sitting in my pool when JD gave me the call that the Nationals had called him up and he was starting against the Mets that next Monday evening in Washington. JD’s debut was the most exciting event, not only of course for JD but for me and my whole family. Being a single parent and coming from a baseball background, it’s what I knew best and it’s what I taught my two boys. This was the payoff for all the hard work and dedicated time the family put toward the game of baseball.
Martin’s debut didn’t go too well as he allowed 5 runs in 4 innings of work, and he had a 7.16 ERA in his first 4 starts. But Martin hit his stride the rest of the season, going 5-2 with a 3.71 ERA in his last 11 starts, and everyone hoped it would be the start of a glorious major league career. But Martin began 2010 back at Triple-A, and after 9 major league starts, back surgery ended his season. According to John Martin, the Nationals added insult to injury when they didn’t give him a rotation spot when he returned after the injury.
For JD, I think he was more insulted and hurt feelings by the Nats not bringing him back after surgery. I mean, just getting into the big leagues and all the stress that comes with it, gaining the confidence needed to pitch in this arena takes a little time.
Last season brought Martin more disappointment in the Marlins organization, but 2013 has added an entirely different dimension to the process. Martin, now 30 years of age, has done everything possible to pitch well for the Rays’ Triple-A Durham affiliate, but he just can’t crack their major league roster. Is it even worth it to pitch well knowing that you won’t get promoted no matter how well you do? Ridgecrest resident Rocky Groves will take success for Martin even in those circumstances hoping that the future holds something more.
It is great watching JD pitch well again. The town is excited. We get up to a hundred people in our restaurant watching him pitch for the Bulls. He seems to really be enjoying the Rays organization. It is frustrating that he is stuck in Triple-A, but things will work out. He will be pitching in the Big Leagues again.
On June 14th, 2011, the Philadelphia Phillies released right-hander Brian Gordon so he could sign with the New York Yankees and start for the Yankees two days later. Gordon isn’t half the pitcher that JD Martin is. Where are the teams lining up to acquire Martin and add him to their rotation? How much could the Rays be asking for him if he’s 10th or 11th on their starting pitching depth chart? Unlike Gordon, Martin doesn’t have an out-clause in his contract in case a team wishes to bring him up to their major league roster. Unlike some teams, the Rays don’t have a policy of releasing a player if they don’t plan to recall him to the majors and other teams desire his services. So, at least until the end of the season, Martin appears to be stuck.
John Martin recounts that he gets asked the same question nearly every day: “What’s it going to take to get JD Martin back in the major leagues?” The core of the issue is that Martin’s fastball rarely reaches 90 MPH these days. Teams even thinking about acquiring him have to wonder whether a pitcher with an 87 MPH fastball is possibly better than the rest of the options they have at Triple-A. Why would it matter if Martin could be acquired for basically nothing? The truth is that in some skewed fashion, Martin’s value as the Rays’ 10th starter is worth more than the non-prospect at A-ball that a team would offer for him. Everyone in Ridgecrest and everyone rooting for Martin has to wish that the Rays would trade him nonetheless if not release him outright. But in lieu of that, there’s only one thing left for Martin to do: keep pitching this well. Getting a call to the major leagues as a minor league veteran happens at the confluence of two things: an open roster spot and extraordinary performance. While the former seems to be a long-shot with the Rays, the latter box is already checked. And after the season, some team with uncertainty in their rotation has to give JD Martin a shot.
Fans can’t ask the Rays to trade or release JD Martin nor can they expect a team to give up a prospect of value to acquire him. All they can hope for is that there’s a few scouts out there telling their teams that Martin is worth a chance to prove himself on a minor league contract with an invite to spring training and may just be something. The scouts won’t be there because of Martin’s talent like they were when he was in high school–he’s certainly no top prospect anymore. But at the end of the day, why does it matter? JD Martin is better than several pitchers currently in the major leagues, and the best players deserve to be playing at the highest level. Martin isn’t just another minor league journeyman hoping for an opportunity, but a pitcher who has already shown in the past and present just how good he can be and is stuck in Triple-A simply as a victim of circumstance. This isn’t desperate family and friends appealing for an undeserving player but a resilient hometown determined to get their unheralded hero his due. There has to be some team out there that will restore our faith in this great game of baseball and give JD Martin a chance.