Nick Martinez arrives.
A year ago, the Rangers’ off-season catcher carousel looked like this, as far as the 40-man roster was concerned:
October 6: Mike Napoli, Geovany Soto, Luis Martinez
November 1: Napoli, Soto, Martinez, Konrad Schmidt
November 3: Soto, Martinez, Schmidt
November 30: Martinez, Schmidt
December 3: Soto, Martinez, Schmidt
December 12: Soto, Martinez, Schmidt, Eli Whiteside
December 14: Soto, Martinez, Whiteside
December 20: A.J. Pierzynski, Soto, Martinez, Whiteside
December 26: Pierzynski, Soto, Whiteside
January 3: Pierzynski, Soto
April 7: Pierzynski, Soto, Robinson Chirinos
This winter, the catching crew has remained fairly well settled from where it was a year ago — AJP out, JPA in — while keeping track of the state of the pitching rotation has been a kaleidoscopic challenge.
The Rangers’ starting five — ranked in January as the seventh strongest in baseball by ESPN’s Buster Olney — was slated to be Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Martin Perez, and Alexi Ogando.
Instead, when Texas and Philadelphia trot out to the baselines Monday afternoon, the Rangers’ starting five will feature Tanner Scheppers, Perez, Robbie Ross, Joe Saunders, and Nick Martinez.
Since 1945, the only pitcher whose first big league start came on Opening Day was the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela (1981). Scheppers, who was born six years after Valenzuela blanked the Astros, 2-0, will be the second.
There’s no Elias note to pin on the addition of Martinez, who spent all month in minor league camp, at least officially. You could have named a dozen other candidates to break camp in the Texas rotation ahead of Martinez, the Rangers’ 18th-round pick in 2011, including Nick Tepesch, who was the breakthrough starter a year ago, but Tepesch got rocked this spring, and since Tommy Hanson wasn’t sharp and Colby Lewis wasn’t deemed quote ready, Martinez is getting the call.
The 23-year-old from Florida made two appearances for the big club this spring, relieving Scheppers to get the final out of the third inning on March 8 (he struck Andre Ethier out looking on a 93-mph fastball) and then, on Tuesday, closing out a 5-0 Rangers win over Cleveland with two clean frames in relief of Ross, racking up four strikeouts and two groundouts (around a double and two singles).
That first effort was a classic “Just In Case” appearance, a minor league pitcher completing an inning for a big leaguer who had hit his pitch limit so the rest of the game’s pitching plans could be kept in place. The second one might have looked like incidental work as well, with the club six days from Opening Day and having specific amounts of work in mind for everyone headed for the active roster. But clearly, the Rangers put Martinez on the mound for two innings Tuesday because of plans they had for the young righthander himself.
Martinez split the 2011 season between Surprise and Spokane, spent 2012 with Low A Hickory, and worked as a starter for High A Myrtle Beach for all of 2013 until a mid-August promotion to AA Frisco, where he made four starts and one very memorable relief appearance.
After three extremely effective RoughRider starts (three earned runs on eight hits and six walks over 19 innings, with 14 strikeouts and a .129/.206/.129 opponents’ slash), in one of which he was perfect through 4.1, on August 27 he was tasked with relieving Tepesch, who was prescribed a specific number of pitches against Corpus Christi as part of his rehabilitation from an elbow injury.
Tepesch hit 41 pitches after issuing a walk and yielding an infield single to start the third, and on came Martinez.
The first Hooks hitter flew out to right. The next one worked a free pass. But Martinez promptly erased him with a 5-4-3 double play grounder.
And then Martinez retired the next 18, in order.
Seven no-hit innings, with one walk and six strikeouts.
Another brilliant start followed (6-3-1-1-0-3 in Midland), and Martinez’s season was over. He’d obviously made an impression.
He’s a back-of-the-rotation type if everything comes together, less heralded than the Chi Chi Gonzalez or Luke Jackson or Alec Asher, three righties he was expected to join in the Frisco rotation next week. He may be a RoughRider not long after that, as Lewis could be ready by April 11. Darvish and Harrison should return not long after that.
Martinez could get rocked in Tampa on April 5, and even if he doesn’t, his mound opposition that day will be David Price.
But strange things sometimes happen, like Justin Grimm and Tepesch earning AL Rookie of the Month honors in April and May a year ago.
Martinez’s backstory gets even more unlikely when you drill back to his college days. Here’s the profile I wrote on him for last year’s Bound Edition, heading into the 2013 season:
Rangers area scout and Davidson College product Jay Heafner spent two years as an infielder in the Texas farm system, playing in 2006 for Short-Season A Spokane and in 2007 for Low A Clinton. While teammates like Chris Davis, Craig Gentry, and Michael Kirkman were working on things that would eventually get them to the big leagues in 2008, 2009, and 2010, Heafner spent 2009, 2010, and 2011 in the Bronx watching most of the 26.1 innings that Fordham University’s starting second baseman happened to pitch, sometimes in the sleet, and it was that resolve and vision that led to Heafner recommending Martinez to the Rangers — as a pitcher — and to the 18th-round pick that the club spent on him. The lanky righthander was not mentioned at all by Baseball America among the 25 draft-eligibles from New York (and 1,361 players overall) in its 2011 pre-draft features, but Heafner believed there was something there, and he appears to have been right. It’s a remarkable story. In his three Rams seasons, Martinez (who started 146 of a possible 165 games at second base) amassed an unsightly 5.47 ERA in those 26.1 scattered innings (6.2 as a freshman, none as a sophomore, 19.2 as a junior), giving up 33 hits (.311 opponents’ average) and 16 walks while fanning 22. Yet in two pro seasons, he’s gone 11-9, 3.99 in 31 starts and 15 relief appearances, issuing only 55 walks while punching out 165. Working in the low 90s with an effective change, his curve has come along to the point at which he threw it for strikes 88 percent of the time in Fall Instructional League play this year. In eight FIL innings, opponents hit .241/.333/.241 against him, and he maintained the velocity he’d shown as a mainstay in Low A Hickory’s rotation during the season. The next step for Martinez will be High A Myrtle Beach, a level that Heafner never reached as a player, and the expectations for the 22-year-old pitcher go well beyond that.
It’s yet another tip of the cap to the Rangers scouting and player development group, who found a middle infielder that was hitting under .300 without power at a small New York college program and, in less than three years, have him in line to start a Major League baseball game. On the mound.
Can’t predict ball.