Terry Collins remembers flying back from the team’s complex in the Dominican Republic. It was February 2009, and the future New York Mets manager was feeling hopeful about Fernando Martinez. Collins watched Martinez play pain-free in the first game of a doubleheader before catching his flight back to the States. Maybe, just maybe, this was the turning point in the career of the Mets top prospect.
“When I got off the flight I had a message: he’s hurt again,” Collins shook his head in disbelief.
The injury was not the first Martinez suffered, and in hindsight, wouldn’t be the last. Since signing with the Mets in July 2005, a deal that included a $1.4 million signing bonus, Martinez has been on the disabled list nine times. His afflictions could be tallied by the body part – knee, elbow, hand, hamstring, lower back.
The $1.4 million question became: Could Fernando Martinez stay healthy long enough to play?
”That’s the goal, to keep him on the field,” said Buffalo manager Tim Teufel. “We know he has talent; it’s just a matter of keeping him healthy.”
The Mets and Martinez were hopeful a fresh start would bring good health and good fortune. The following spring, Martinez played in 10 games, batting .333 (8-for-24). Still, the Mets wanted him to prove he could perform at a high level and, more importantly, stay healthy. He carried his hot bat north to Buffalo with a four-hit game the first week of the season. One week later, Martinez was sent back to the disabled list with a sore hamstring.
“It’s not that you doubt the talent,” said assistant GM John Ricco. “It’s getting the [at-bats]. If not, that’s in the equation. Angel Pagan was a similar case. Everybody knew he had the talent, but you start to say, ‘OK, how long can we go?’ At some point he’s going to have to stay healthy.”
“He’s worth every penny,” Sandy Johnson, Mets’ VP for scouting, told the Times. “He’s a complete player.”
Baseball America ranked Martinez the No. 20 prospect. By last season he was at No. 77 on the list and headed south. One injury after another, year after year, deflated Martinez’ stock value. The Wall Street Journal called him “the forgotten prospect … no one is frothing over him anymore.”
“Sometimes I say, ‘Come on, what happened?’” Martinez said. “What happened to me? I play very hard. I’m young. Maybe all the injuries will stop one day.”
The injuries left him hobbled by arthritis in his right knee, a history that presents potential problems in the future. Ken Oberkfell, who managed him in Buffalo for two years said, “It’s been a leg issue with most of the stuff, so it’s slowed down his defensive development and his offensive development. You use your legs a lot to hit and obviously you use your legs a lot to play the outfield.”
“It’s really hard to project what these guys are going to be, whether or not they’re going to stay healthy,” said Paul DePodesta, the Mets’ former vice president of player development and amateur scouting. “To be honest, we’re not real good at it as an industry.”
The waiting game ended in January 2012, when the Mets released Martinez. He never played a full season, at any level, due to recurring injuries. Since making his major league debut in 2009 (at age 20), he Martinez played in 99 major league games, compiling 282 career at-bats and a .206 batting average.
POST SCRIPT: Martinez was signed by the Houston Astros, where he parts of two seasons before be traded to the New York Yankees. Six weeks after the deal, Martinez was suspended 50 games by the MLB for violating its drug policy. Today he plays for the Estrellas Orientales, the team from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic.