The other day, Metsblog linked to this post from Mack’s Mets on Fernando Martinez. The gist of it is that Mack feels that Martinez’ arthritis moots his status as a prospect and ruins his trade value. I think I understand where Mack is coming from here: the hype surrounding Martinez just three season ago reached such unsustainable levels (remember the “Teenage Hitting Machine”?) that a healthy Martinez would have struggled to meet them. His subsequent injuries have both hindered his development and started to create a “bust” feeling about him. I can see that, yet I think writing Martinez off as a prospect/trading chip is very shortsighted.
First, the medical condition. Did you know that there are over 100 types of arthritis? I didn’t. The more familiar kinds are osteoarthritis (the most common form, acquired via wear and tear on the joint), rheumatoid (a disorder in which the body’s own immune system starts to attack it), lupus (a vascular disorder), and gout (inflammation caused by deposition of uric acid crystals in a joint). We know Martinez doesn’t have gout and it’s never lupus, but what about the other two? I’m no doctor, but it would seem safe to say that since the arthritic condition exists only in Martinez’ right knee, it’s not rheumatoid arthritis. And that’s just not as bad as it seems on the surface.
Let me be clear: I am not diminishing the suffering arthritis causes. My mother deals with it on a daily basis: I know the discomfort she deals with everyday. But it’s far from hopeless: better diet and increased activity have mitigated her pain and allowed her to use pain killers sparsely. My mother is 61 with arthritis in both hands, both wrists, and both knees (to start). Fernando Martinez is 22, with “minor” arthritis in his right knee. I hate to say this, but if she can deal with it successfully, he’ll probably find a way to manage it and keep playing.
Will he ever be as fast as he once was? Probably not, but to translate that into “he can’t be a productive major league player” is nonsense. However daunting Martinez’ injury history may be, other players have overcome similar challenges in the past and gone on to have productive careers. As you may have guessed from the title of this post, Jay Payton is just such an example.
Drafted in 1994 out Georgia Tech, Payton played 58 games for short season affiliate Pittsfield and eight games for AA Binghamton. He followed that up by playing 135 games in 1995, 85 in Binghamton and 50 in AAA Norfolk. That season marked the start of his injury troubles: though he was named the Eastern League’s MVP, he played most of the season in pain from an injury suffered in spring training. That September, Payton had surgery to transplant a tendon from his wrist to his right elbow.
1996 saw Payton play in just 71 games for four Mets’ affiliates (55 were played in AAA Norfolk). This was largely as a result of a surgery in May to remove bone chips from the same elbow. A third surgery (in January 1997) was needed to remove scar tissue. The surgeries forced Payton to move to first base, but it was no use: Payton underwent a second reconstructive surgery that cost him the entire 1997 season. If you’ve lost count, that’s a total of four surgeries on the same elbow.
Payton reached the 100 game mark in 1998, only the second time in his career that he played that many games. He played 85 games for Norfolk, beginning the season at first base but moving back to the outfield after 25 games. He would end the season in New York, making his major league debut and playing 15 games for the Mets. However, the news was not all good: Payton underwent a pair of arthroscopic procedures on his left shoulder in January 1999.
Payton returned in time to play 45 games for Norfolk and 13 for the Mets. 2000 saw him play 149 games for the National League champion Mets, the first of nine consecutive seasons in which Payton would play at least 100 games at the major league level.
Was he the superstar many expected him to be? No, but he was largely a productive player: according to both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs, Payton only had one season* of negative WAR and totaled roughly 14 WAR over his career. More notably for our purposes, Payton gave the Mets 3.7 WAR (2.8 if you go by Fangraphs) over parts of five seasons for around $866,000 dollars, excellent bang for their buck. While his Mets’ career never met the hype, he was a productive, cheap asset that was wasted in a bad trade (most likely brought on because Steve Phillips thought he was selfish).
*Due (I think) to differences in the way both systems weight defense, they differ on which season was negative. B-R.com has Payton’s 2001 season as -0.3 WAR while Fangraphs has his 2005 as -0.5. Such disagreements are common. I think it’s safe to generalize that both systems have him at 14 career WAR.
Fernando Martinez is 22 and has only played in 349 games (not including fall and winter league games). Jay Payton was 21 when he started his career (27 when he played his first full major league season) and dealt with far more serious injuries (e.g. elbow reconstruction). While we may want to forget about super-stardom for Martinez, Payton’s career is more than enough reason to remember that we should not throw the baby out with the bath water: there is time enough for Fernando Martinez to help the Mets win baseball games.