There’s a saying with pitching prospects, usually with young starter/reliever in-betweeners who for one reason or another haven’t had things click, about when to pull the trigger and convert a starter into a reliever. “You let ‘em start until they show you they can’t.” Let them exhaust any possibility of sticking as a starter, and use the bullpen as a nice fallback plan.
After a rough 2018, we might be approaching that point with Brett Martin.
The Rangers’ lefty entered the year trying to reverse a trend of spotty health dating back a few seasons. Martin suffered moderate to serious injuries and missed significant time in each year from 2015 to 2017, lingering/nagging-type injuries with hips and obliques and his back. While Martin’s been active for the entirety of the 2018 season, he’s been grappling for most of the year. His first six starts went horribly, Martin throwing 27.2 innings and allowing 27 runs on 51 hits. The Rangers and the RoughRiders and manager Joe Mikulik let him try to figure things out into early June but couldn’t keep tossing him out there to get smashed, and when the Rangers promoted Jonathan Hernandez to AA it was Martin’s slot in the rotation he took over. In the same game that Hernandez made his AA debut, Brett Martin made his first relief appearance since 2015, pitching 3 innings, giving up a run and striking out 4. Since then Martin has remained in the bullpen, save for a few short-inning spot starts peppered in over the past 3 months, including one last night that stayed within his mold for 2018 starts.
Excluding those few spot starts, Brett startin’ put up a 1-5 record over 10 games, with an ERA just over 8 in 46 innings. The problem, which you may have already deduced, is the hits. Martin was just getting smacked around by the Texas League, allowing over 13 hits per 9 and a .347 opponents’ average against. Even with a high K-rate and a respectable BB-rate, his WHIP was hovering around 2.
Pretty much any success Martin has had this season has come as a reliever. Since his switch to the bullpen Martin has been used mostly as a mid-relief, multiple innings kind of guy, usually pitching the 6th and 7th, sometimes coming in an inning earlier or staying an inning later. The K’s have ticked up a bit more and the walks have stayed low, and though his first few relief appearances didn’t deviate much from his starts, he seems to have settled into the role as of late. Through 14 relief appearances he’s posted an ERA of 4.28 in 27.1 innings, with 33 strikeouts and 11 walks. In August he’s pitched exclusively in relief, and it’s easily been the best month of his 2018 season. It looks like he’s in the bullpen to stay for the RoughRiders’ 2018 season, and he could see some high-leverage innings as the Riders attempt to close a gap between themselves and first place Corpus Christi with a week and a half left in the season.
So the question is whether or not the change to the bullpen will carry over to the 2019 season and beyond, and if the Rangers have forgone the idea of Brett Martin as a starter.
I think the short answer is no, to both, but external factors could have them leaning toward either direction.
First of all, Brett Martin is on the Rangers’ 40-man roster. He’s been averaging over 30 pitches per relief outing, with the aforementioned spot starts mixed in, so he’s still stretched out. The Rangers could call him up in a week, shut down Mike Minor or launch Drew Hutchinson, fill in Brett Martin on a whim and bam. He’s an ex-dude Major League Starting Pitcher. Delete this post.
Second of all he’s 23, and the Rangers have implemented a much more patient approach with their young pitching talent the last couple years, and they’ve thought nothing of having guys repeat levels. Martin’s having his first full injury-free season as a professional, and he’s still got the kind of upside that earns a long leash. He’s still the guy that pitched the best start from a Rangers farmhand in the last 5 years or so, a 7-inning, no-hit, 15-strikeout gem that came in the playoffs for High-A High Desert in 2016. Even as a starter this year he showed a flash or two of a very serviceable 92-93 mph fastball and a biting breaking ball that he uses with confidence when it’s working. There’s something there.
The results aren’t, though. And when you combine the results with the past record of injury (including elbow issues) it becomes a question of whether they think Martin can physically hold up to a starter’s workload enough to even make it worth trying. Not to mention the Rangers suddenly have a few more starting pitchers around the AA level, with Hernandez, Hearn, Arredondo, Palumbo, Lacy, and others. They’ll have the return of Chichi Gonzalez and Yohander Mendez, and they’ll have similar “what to do with” questions around Wes Benjamin and Pedro Payano and Richelson Pena. They could find room in the rotation for Martin somewhere between the Triple-A/Double-A levels, or they could use him as they have for the last three months, as a multi-inning reliever capable of filling in as a starter until he hopefully finds success again.
Either way I think there’s a legit major league prospect in there, either as a starter or as a bullpen piece. He’s a lefty with upside and a lot of swing and miss. 2019 is going to be a telling year for Brett and there are a few different directions the Rangers can send him. He’s been through the thresher this year, but he’s been out on the mound every 3-7 days without fail for the last 5 months. For a guy who told reporters back on media day that his number one goal for the year is health, that has to be considered a giant success.