How J.D. Martinez went from a Minor League roster filler to a Major League outfielder.

We’ve already written about J.D. Martinez’s memories of his first exposure to professional baseball, and now, I thought it would be interesting to hear from Martinez’s first manager, current Lexington skipper Rodney Linares.

Linares was managing the club’s Rookie League team in Greeneville when Martinez joined the club as a 20th round draft pick in 2009. Martinez wasn’t supposed to play a lot — he was considered a roster filler — but the perception changed immediately, literally after Martinez took his first swing during batting practice.

Pitcher Juri Perez was throwing live BP and offered up a 94 mph fastball, which Martinez deposited over the center field wall. Linares immediately grabbed his phone and called Ricky Bennett, then the Astros’ farm director.

“I said, ‘Ricky. This is my No. 3 hitter,’” Linares remembered. Bennett told him he would leave it up to Linares to decide how and when to play Martinez, but reminded him there were players higher on the depth chart who needed to get playing time. “Find a way to let them play,” Bennett told Linares.

Linares stuck to his guns and inserted Martinez into the starting lineup. Martinez had a terrible day at the plate, and the second game, Linares didn’t play him.

“It was killing me,” Linares said.

Then center fielder Grant Hogue got hurt. Linares shuffled the outfield alignment and put Martinez in right field. Martinez got two hits, including a home run. The next night, Martinez played again and logged four hits. The same thing happened the next night. Again, Linares called Bennett.

“I said, ‘Ricky, this guy needs to play. The bat is there.’” Linares recalled.

The temporary solution? Move Martinez to first base. That experiment lasted about 20 games.

“When you’re moving guys around, the best transition is when you take them from the infield to the outfield,” Linares said. “If a guy’s an offensive player, moving them to the outfield takes away a lot — they’re not worried about making plays, bunt plays, all of that. But when you moved a guy from the outfield to the infield, you’re putting all of that stuff in their minds.”

And the rest is history. Martinez moved back to the outfield and by the end of 2010 was named the Astros’ Minor League Player of the Year. He was fast tracked to the big leagues, receiving the call up while with the Double-A Hooks a few weeks ago. One of Martinez’s first calls was fittingly to his former manager, whose belief in his pupil was the sole reason Martinez was getting this opportunity.

Linares was shopping at Wal-Mart and talking with his wife on the phone when Martinez’s call beeped in.

“I said to my wife, ‘I have to take this call,’” Linares said. At first, Martinez played it coy — just, as Linares remembered, “calling to say hi.”

“I said, ‘If you’re not calling me to tell me you’re going to the big leagues, I’m going to be upset,’” Linares laughed.

While some of the players the Astros have called up to the Majors are probably being rushed a bit, Linares feels Martinez will benefit from being forced to learn on the job, in the spotlight. The pitching is obviously better at this level which might be beneficial as Martinez continues to work to being a better pull hitter.

“He came in last year and there was still a lot of criticism because he wasn’t hitting home runs,” Linares said. “But when they get to the big leagues, it gets easier, because pitchers are more crisp, they’re around the zone. Hitters can focus more on getting the barrel out.”

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Danny Sheaffer, the Astros’ catching coordinator, is in town with the Legends this week. He is fresh off a visit to Kissimmee, Florida, where the Astros’ Gulf Coast League team plays. Catcher Jason Castro has been in Kissimmee for about four weeks, continuing he rehab from knee surgery resulting from an injury he suffered during Spring Training.

Sheaffer said that while Castro isn’t quite ready to start catching bullpens, he looks good, is in great shape and is hitting well.  Catching ‘pens should be coming in the near future. Castro is still on target to return to playing in 2012.
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Here’s a fun blog I came across on Twitter, titled, “What the Heck, Bobby? An Homage to Bobby Heck’s Efforts to Rebuild the Astros Farm System.” In this entry, we are given the rundown of the average ages of all of the Astros’ farm teams.

According to their research, the average age of the entire system — including the big league club and all affiliates — is 22 years, 306 days. The average age of the Lexington Legends? 22 years, 22 days.
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Other notables:

Keep an eye on Roberto Pena, a 19-year-old catcher from Puerto Rico who many feel has a future in the big leagues. He’s drawn comparisons to Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina at the same age. If Pena continues to progress, he could be Major League ready in a few years. …Legends reliever Murilo Gouvea relieved Tanner Bushue in the third inning Wednesday and pitched five shutout innings, striking out six batters and walking one. The Brazil native was signed by the White Sox as a 17-year-old in 2006. In his last 10 games, he has a 1.95 ERA, allowing 6 earned runs over 27 2/3 innings.

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5 Comments

Alyson, this kid is *AMAZING*!! I love to watch him swing the bat! What to do with Carlos *sigh*. Brett Wallace looks like he’s starting to get *it* back together, but I’m not too happy with Johnson’s numbers at OKC. Thanks for these great stories!
We love to hear about these guys! Are you in Lexington? If you are I’m jealous!
Becky:) :) :)

Alyson, it’s great to have baseball reports/stories from you again! I’ve missed your candor and insight!

Pingback: Studying Dude « Camposcommunications’s Blog

Good stuff! I love your articles but especially enjoy info on the minor league players. Keep up the good work!

Very nice article, Allison!

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