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April 11, 2010

Inside The Park

The Disparate Paths of Andy Marte and Michael Brantley

by Bradford Doolittle

Andy Marte is a forgotten man at 26. Just a few years ago, Marte was a darling of the prospect hounds, including Baseball Prospectus. He was compared favorably to players like Adrian Beltre (at his best) and Miguel Cabrera. He posted mouth-watering power numbers at precocious ages in his respective leagues. He even displayed improving strike-zone command, with gradually rising walk rates and gradually decreasing strikeout totals. There was nothing not to like.

In 2005, BP declared Marte the top prospect in the game, after ranking him third in 2004. The praise wasn't the lone voice in the prospect-rating wilderness. Baseball America rated him as the Braves' top prospect in 2004 and as Boston's great minor-league hope in 2006. (The rankings were put together before Marte was flipped to Cleveland.) He was BA's ninth-ranked overall prospect in 2005. Even after Marte was traded twice in a 45-day span in late 2005 and early 2006, he seemed like as sure of a bet to become a big-league fixture as a young player possibly can be.

Now, Marte enters his 10th professional season as the Indians' primary backup at the infield corners. The job is as precarious as it sounds. When Russell Branyan, one of Cleveland's off-season acquisitions, returns from a back injury, Marte might be out of a job. He almost found himself without a team last spring, when Cleveland designated him for assignment in early March. The Indians needed the roster spot after acquiring slow-developing power reliever Juan Salas from the Rays. The one-time consensus top third-base prospect in the game went unclaimed, so the Indians brought him back to camp and then assigned him to Triple-A Columbus. It was the eighth season in which Marte spent significant time in the minor leagues.

What happened? It might be easier to point out what didn't happen. By definition, baseball prospects aren't finished products. Bodies change as athletes mature, often for the worse. For young hitters, every increase in level is a new challenge, with the biggest leap being the last: The transition to the major leagues. In Marte's case, what looked like a rapidly-improving approach at the plate crumbled when he was confronted by the nasty repertoires of big-league pitchers.

Marte's approach at the dish now is almost the polar opposite of Cleveland's Opening Day left fielder, Michael Brantley. Ironically, if the advanced command of the strike zone Brantley displayed as a minor-leaguer pays off in real big-league production, it could have a direct effect on Marte's destiny. Reportedly, the Indians would have preferred Brantley get a little more minor-league time to gain some experience and hold off the service-time clock. His performance in spring training, along with the Branyan's injury, forced the team's hand. Now, if he struggles at the season's outset, he may get that time in Columbus after all. But if he succeeds, then someone else will go.

That someone could be Marte.

The New Skipper

First-year Indians manager Manny Acta, like Marte, is from the Dominican Republic, but he didn't know the former phenom well until he took the job in Cleveland. Acta is an engaging man, a baseball lifer who loves to spin yarns about his many days in the minor leagues.

"This is a team trying to win a division and they don't have time to be experimenting with guys," Acta said before a recent game against the White Sox. "You play the guys that can help you win."

Acta spins a bat in his hands as he talks. He pauses, considering his words before speaking, comfortable in the silence. He's a stark contrast to Ozzie Guillen, the opposing skipper that night but, in his own way, he's just as funny. It's a cold, rainy night at U.S. Cellular Field, the second game of the season. It's April in Chicago and Acta relates a tale from the previous afternoon, when he was walking along State Street downtown. He was enjoying a warm breeze from the north, when all of a sudden a frigid gale blew in off Lake Michigan from the east. With the snap of a finger, early spring turned back into late winter. Acta shakes his head and laughs at the recollection.

Batting practice has been canceled, but some of Acta's players have made their way out into right field to loosen up and play a little catch. Acta holds court in the Indians’ dugout, watching the rain fall on the red tarp spread across the infield with a small group of writers. When Acta speaks about Marte, he tries to be complimentary, but the glowing rhetoric that once drove critiques on Marte is notably absent.

"It's about consistency, whether you get 10 at-bats or 100 or 200, you have to take advantage," Acta says. "(His struggles) have been consistently at the plate, basically. Everybody knows that he's a very good defender. You can put him with the glove at first or third base."

When Marte was attempting to break in with the Braves, his path was blocked by franchise stalwart Chipper Jones. At the time, Atlanta needed a shortstop, so Marte was traded to Boston for Edgar Renteria during the winter meetings in 2005. That trade was engineered by then-Red Sox honcho Bill Lajoie, who headed the small committee that ran Boston's front office during Theo Epstein's time away from the team. Boston already had an established third baseman—Mike Lowell.

"This is a throwback-type of third baseman," Lajoie told reporters at the time. "This is the power corner that you hope will hit 25 homers when he does play in the majors.

"We want to keep that player. He’s ready to have a good year. He would be one of the five players you would want to start a ballclub with."

Seven weeks later, Lajoie flipped Marte to Cleveland, along with Guillermo Mota, Kelly Shoppach, Randy Newsom and cash in exchange for Josh Bard, Coco Crisp and David Riske. Not exactly the kind of haul you'd expect for one of the game's five most-valued assets, if indeed that's what Marte was. Last year, Lajoie, now with the Pirates, shed some light on his Marte scheme.

"We got him to trade him," Lajoie told reporters. "We knew Tampa (Bay) or Cleveland wanted him. So Crisp was the guy we wanted and they wanted Marte. That deal had started well before we got Marte because they indicated they wanted him and that was the guy they were looking for. You get him and you say, 'Well, he might play left field and we’ll get him some at-bats,' but truthfully we were going to trade him."

Waiting For A Chance

Back in the Cleveland clubhouse, Marte is relaxing in front of his locker, dressed for a batting practice session that is never going to happen. He lockers next to Jhonny Peralta, the latest third baseman to stand in Marte's way. There always seems to be somebody. Peralta was shifted to the hot corner full-time last season, while Marte was in Columbus, just beginning the process of winning back some of the club's confidence in him. Mark DeRosa opened the season as the Cleveland's everyday third baseman. Prior to that, it was Casey Blake.

"There are a lot of things that once you get up here, you can't control," Acta says, still holding the bat, just in case one of the hovering writers gets out of line. "Even if you have a good year in Triple-A, if you have somebody in front of you, they're not going to move someone just to see if you can do it here.

"A lot of it is being in the right place in the right time. He's had Blake here, now Jhonny. He's going to have to take advantage of the opportunities he gets and open some eyes."

By now, Marte has accumulated about the number of big-league plate appearances that Jimmy Rollins gets in a full season. It's taken Marte over five years to get there. His pseudo-season line reads: .215/.272/.351. He's hit 15 home runs in 737 plate appearances, and struck out nearly three times as often as he's walked. This is not the path that PECOTA foresaw. In 2006, when Marte was still in the good graces of the prospect hounds, PECOTA's mean projection for Marte that campaign was .254/.335/.445, with 20 home runs. His most-similar comps included Rico Petrocelli, Manny Ramirez, Ron Santo. Yeah, he was that kind of prospect. Now, Marte is still battling to learn the lessons he would have learned years ago, if it were ever going to happen.

"(I need) to be more consistent," Marte says, echoing the sentiments of his manager. "I know I can hit up here. I need to be more selective at the plate and get better pitches. Everything comes from there. If I do that, I'll have good success."

He makes it sound so simple, but of course it's not.

The New Left Fielder

The lessons that have been so hard for Marte to learn seem to have been hard-wired into Michael Brantley at birth.

Brantley, who turns 23 next month, is good-looking and affable. Despite his age, he seems right at home in the Indians clubhouse, the most animated figure at a table full of ballplayers engaged in a friendly card game, while the rain falls outside. He grew up around ballplayers. His father, Mickey, played four seasons for the Mariners in the 1980s. The younger Brantley's favorite player growing up was Ken Griffey Jr., whose arrival in 1989 may have helped to hasten his father's departure from the majors. Brantley was not yet 2 years old when Griffey made his big-league debut for the Mariners on April 3, 1989. Now, with Griffey back in Seattle and near the end of a Hall of Fame career, Brantley is bubbling with the excitement of youth, the kind of which used to define his hero.

"It's what you dream of as a kid," a smiling Brantley said in the hours before his first Opening Day start. "Opening Day, left field, in front of however many thousands of people. That's what you dream of, to get to experience it first hand."

Unlike Marte, Brantley isn't an uberstar in the prospect guides. He's merely solid, clocking in at fifth among Cleveland prospects at Baseball America. BP's Kevin Goldstein had Brantley 10th in Cleveland's system in his "Top 11" series from last season, writing:

The Good: Brantley profiles as a classic leadoff hitter. He works the count well, rarely strikes out, and combines plus-plus speed with outstanding instincts on the bases, as he stole 46 bases at Triple-A Columbus in 51 attempts. He's a very good outfielder at all three positions.

The Bad: Brantley will need to hit for a high batting average to play every day in the big leagues, as he has below-average power, although his six home runs this year matched his career total entering the year. His arm is weak.

On Opening Day, it was Marte sitting in front of his locker, wondering if he was going to get into the game, while Brantley was bouncing around preparing to face Chicago's Mark Buehrle.

"I like to use my speed and create havoc on the basepaths," Brantley said, describing his strengths as player. "At the same time, I feel like I'm a pretty good all-around ballplayer."

Brantley was part of Cleveland’s haul when it dealt CC Sabathia to the Brewers in July, 2008. The initial deal was Sabathia for a player to be named, Rob Bryson, Zach Jackson, and Matt LaPorta. Brantley turned out to be the fourth player. When this season began, Brantley was perched in left field, while LaPorta manned the first-base bag for the Indians. Brantley advanced quickly through, first, the Milwaukee system, then Cleveland's, after being taken in the seventh round of the 2005 draft. Like Marte, he was always young for his level, hitting the Triple-A International League last season at 22.

His advanced approach at the plate manifested itself right away in the pros, and has never wavered. In five minor-league seasons, he walked more than he struck out in each campaign. While Brantley’s walk rates have always been merely solid, his ability to get the bat on the ball consistently has kept his batting averages high and propped up his on-base percentages. He did suffer a drop in average at Columbus, but his excellent walk-to-strikeout ratio remained intact. That may indicate that his dip in average was merely due to the mischievousness of balls-in-play. Or it may not—with prospects, you can never quite be sure about anything. In fact, after drawing about 1.4 walks for every strikeout in the minors, Brantley now has nine walks against 23 strikeouts in the early stages of his big-league career. The transition is something Marte can appreciate.

"Pitching (in the majors) and in the minor leagues is not the same," Marte said. "The pitchers here don't make mistakes like they do in the minor leagues. It's just different."

However, Marte is working from a very different innate set of traits. In his first two professional seasons, at the ages of 17 and 18, he struck out 2.6 times for every walk. At 18, Brantley had 28 walks and 17 strikeouts in 241 plate appearances. These are two very different starting points for two very different kind of ballplayers.

"When I was growing up as a kid, I was the same way," Brantley said. "I didn't try to swing at too many balls (out of the zone). I was (always) a very patient hitter. Then in my professional career, I just tried to stay focused on swinging at good pitches."

That approach proved to be consistent during his time with the Brewers and, of course, the Indians weren't about to change a style of play that they, as an organization, hold so dear.

"When I was traded over here, they just told me to be the same player," Brantley said. "They liked what I was doing. I didn't try to do too much or change too much. I just tried to stay on an even keel."

As for Marte, he was reared in an Atlanta organization whose philosophy has always been to encourage and develop the natural traits of their young hitters. Royals general manager Dayton Moore, who was with the Braves during the time of Marte's rearing and whom refers to Marte as "a son" has always preached about the importance of "not taking away that natural aggressiveness" from young hitters. It's easy to point at Marte, and other Atlanta products like Jeff Francoeur, and say that philosophy is cock-eyed, but you can't do so without acknowledging that not so long ago, the Braves won 14 division titles in 15 years.

"(The Braves) let you play. You're more free," Marte said, referring to organizational approaches. "They let you be you. Here (in the Cleveland organization), it's a little different. It's 'do it this way and do it that way.'"

There Is No Magic Bean

You can't really say that Marte has more natural ability than Brantley. In fact, he probably has less. Brantley is an exceptional athlete and, despite being deft with the glove, Marte looks—for lack of a better term—a little lumpy. However, Marte's power potential still dwarfs that of Brantley’s, who is trying to develop his power stroke at the game's highest level.

"I believe so," Brantley said when asked if he expected to generate more power in the future. "I think you'll see a little more in 2010. I make no guarantees, but I feel a lot stronger and, mentally, I'm tougher than I've ever been in my life."

PECOTA has cooled considerably on Marte, as you would expect given his big-league totals. His mean projection is for a line of .261/.316/.437, less than that which was predicted for him at age 22. His top comps are now Tracy Woodson, Willis Otanez and German Rivera, but Aramis Ramirez still crops up. Brantley, meanwhile, is at .275/.348/.368, with notable similarity to Coco Crisp, the player for whom Marte was once traded.

Because Marte's fatal flaw has been strike-zone command, which happens to be Brantley's strength as a player, it's easy to see the ratio of walks-to-strikeouts as some sort of prospect mining panacea. But of course, it's not. There is no magic bean. If there were, somebody would have discovered it and planted it long ago.

There were 53 different position players that appeared in BP's Top 50 Prospects list in the 2004 and 2005 annuals, when Marte's stock was at its apex. Two of those players—Eric Duncan and Mitch Einertson—have never played in the big leagues. On that list of one-time prospects, 12 have posted a higher major-league OPS than they did in the minors.

The players that have most outperformed their minor-league OPS are some of baseball's brightest young stars—Hanley Ramirez, Grady Sizemore, Joe Mauer, Brian McCann, and David Wright. Mauer, of course, has exceptional strike-zone command, while Sizemore and Wright are very good in that area. However, neither Ramirez or McCann had very good walk-to-strikeouts ratios in the minors. Both have improved, particularly McCann, at the big-league level, but there was little in their minor-league records to suggest this would happen.

For what it's worth, one believer in the predictive power of strike-zone command is Manny Acta. The Indians skipper says of young hitters, "(Command of the strike zone) helps them become better. The strike zone up here is better, the pitchers are more consistently around the plate. Guys that are usually good in the minor leagues at knowing the strike zone become better at the big-league level. That doesn't mean it's going to translate into hitting the ball, but it helps.

"(Plate discipline) helps everybody, if you have it. (Marte) had a good year in Triple-A last year, so he must have been doing something right. But baseball up here, it's completely different."

On the list of 2004 and 2005 prospects, there is one name that stands out. There is one player that has seen the biggest decline in OPS from the minors to the majors. As it happens, that player, despite scouting reports to the contrary, did not display a great statistical command of the strike zone over the course of eight minor-league seasons. That player's name is Andy Marte.

Again, there is no magic bean. A favorable ratio of a player's walks to strikeouts doesn't ensure anything, nor do the rates at which those things occur. Nevertheless, all things being equal, players who demonstrate strike-zone command, and the ability to maintain that command as they advance up the baseball ladder, are safer bets than players who see those indicators erode in the face of superior pitching. These indicators might not give us the bottom line on whether a player will succeed or fail, but they can help guide teams in projecting how well a player's overall performance is going to translate to the higher levels.

We don't know what will happen with Marte and Brantley. Marte has been the top name on the hot list, while Brantley has jetted to a regular big-league job while skirting the edge of it. Now it's Brantley's time to shine. You can contrast Acta's careful words about Marte—about needing to "take advantage of the opportunities he's given"—with shining platitudes about Brantley's potential.

"He's very good all-around, man, despite his age," Acta said. "He's honed his skills very well. He can take pitches, he can run, he plays good defense. It didn't hurt him growing up around his dad. He's mature beyond his years. He's going to be a very good player very soon."

Last Chance, First Chance

On Opening Day, the Mark-Buehrle-flip-between-the-legs game, the hits are few and far between for the Tribe. Brantley manages to poke a single through the hole at shortstop off Sox reliever J.J. Putz once Buehrle has left the game. Marte doesn't play. The Indians are shut out.

In the second game, the cold, rainy contest, Brantley steps to the plate in the fourth inning, with Cleveland down 3-0. The bases are loaded. He works the count against Sox starter Jake Peavy, then bloops a single off the end of the bat into shallow center field. Brantley's single plates Cleveland's first run of the season. The Indians go on to erase the deficit in the inning, then go ahead on a LaPorta double in the seventh. With the late-inning lead, Marte is summoned to employ his superior glove at first base.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, with the tying run on base and two outs, Marte moves into the hole and makes a nice stab of a hard A.J. Pierzynski grounder. He flips to Cleveland closer Chris Perez for the game's final out. Afterward, the Indians’ clubhouse is decidedly upbeat, if not jubilant. Rap is blaring from one end of the room to the other, while the players pile their postgame plates high with pasta, ribs and corn on the cob.

Marte dresses quickly, then walks around the clubhouse, chatting and pounding fists with teammates, happy to have contributed to the cause. When you catch up to him and ask for a chat, he actually seems glad to see you. You ask how cold it was out there. He offers a mock shiver and smiles.

"Yeah, it was hard to get loose," Marte says. "About the sixth inning, we started drinking coffee, trying to get warm. You do everything you have to do so when they need you, you're ready."

That's Marte's job these days. Being ready. It's not how we thought his career would go and probably not what he anticipated, either. But it's the big leagues, and for now at least, it's a job. Tomorrow, the story may be different. Russell Branyan is healing and Cleveland gave him $2 million to return to the organization during the offseason. When he's ready, someone's got to go. Marte is out of options. This may be his last chance.

On the other hand, Brantley looks like a professional, not just because of the way he carries himself off the field, but more so because of the approach he takes with him each and every time he steps up to home plate. For Brantley, it's only his first chance and to watch him goof and play with his veteran teammates, you get the feeling it's the only chance he's ever going to need.

 If not, it's no big deal. There will be others.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bradford's other articles. You can contact Bradford by clicking here

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