Mets, Yanks Have Budding Stars on the Farm
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While the Yankees and Mets play out the string, the only remaining mystery is who they will face in the playoffs as opposed to if they will make the postseason. At the minor league level, however, there are still some questions concerning the top offensive prospects in each system. Outfielders Fernando Martinez of the Mets and Jose Tabata of the Yankees have similar backgrounds and have achieved similar success as professionals at remarkably young ages. Luckily, the question for each is not just, “Will they be good?” but rather, “How good they will be?”
Martinez was the biggest prize of last year’s international signing period. While the draft that year was loaded with tools-laden high school outfielders, scouts who saw Martinez during his private workouts in the Dominican Republic said he was as good as any of them. A multi-team bidding war was finally won by the Mets, and Martinez signed for $1.4 million a few months before his 17th birthday. Most teenagers from Latin America spend their first year in extended spring training before playing in a rookie-league, but the Mets felt Martinez was so advanced that he was ready for a full-season league, and he reported in April to Hagerstown as the youngest player in the South Atlantic League.
Martinez had five hits in his first three games and never slowed down, batting .322 in 28 games before being hit with the injury bug; Martinez missed a month with a wrist injury and then lasted just three more games before suffering a thumb injury that would keep him out until late July. Finally healthy, Martinez went on another tear and was promoted to the Florida State League for the final month of the season, an unheard of promotion for a player who is still not a legal adult. While he went 7-for-20 with a pair of home runs in his first five games, he slumped in the remainder of the season, batting just .193 in 30 games.
Martinez is blessed with natural hitting ability. A left-handed hitter, Martinez is just coming into his power, as seven of his 10 home runs came in his last 44 games. Like many young players, Martinez is an undisciplined hitter, and because he’s only a slightly above-average runner now, he’ll likely be unable to remain in center field and a move to a corner is likely. Still, for a player so young to do so well is rare, and Martinez could be just three years away from becoming an impact outfielder in the major leagues.
There is only one other Latin American teenage sensation as well regarded as Martinez, and he just happens to be in the Yankees system. Tabata was one of the best players in Venezuela last year, and received a $550,000 bonus in time to play in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, where he hit .314 and had scouts raving about his bat speed and approach. Like Martinez, Tabata began this year in the South Atlantic League with Charleston, and only Martinez was younger among the league’s 400 players. Tabata got off to a tremendous start with the River Dogs, batting .356 in his first 23 games, and in 86 games he hit .298 with five home runs and 15 stolen bases before a strained thumb ended his season prematurely.
Like Martinez, there are few historical comparables to Tabata. He just turned 18 last month, and already has two years of minor league success, whereas most American players are just starting their careers. Scouts are universal in their praise for Tabata but, while everyone thinks the Yankees have a future star on their hands, there are diverse opinions on what kind of star Tabata will develop into. Tabata is relatively small — 5 foot 11, 160 pounds — and is still not physically mature. Despite the low home run total, he already has the ability to pull mistake pitches and his swing adds natural loft to the ball. If the power develops as some feel it could, Tabata could turn into a middle-of-the-order run producer; even if it doesn’t, it’s easy to project him as a .300 plus hitter in the majors leagues, meaning whatever power comes is just gravy.
So where do we go from here? While each player had their share of injuries in 2006, Martinez is now 100% healthy, and Yankees officials indicate that while Tabata missed the final month of the season, his thumb is expected fully to be healed in time for the postseason instructional leagues.
Both the Mets and Yankees have their minor league affiliates in the same leagues across the minors, so in 2007, Martinez and Tabata are both expected to begin the year in the Florida State League, with Martinez returning to St. Lucie where he finished the season, and Tabata playing in Tampa. Once again, the two will easily be the two youngest players in the circuit.
These are two special talents. Going through history, it’s difficult to find two comparable players achieving what Martinez and Tabata have done so early in their careers at the same time, nonetheless the same city. These are two very special talents, with outside chances as becoming homegrown stars in the mold of Bernie Williams or Darryl Strawberry. And just finding players who even have the chance to become superstars is the most difficult part of the scouting and player development industry.
However, while both Mets and Yankees fans have plenty to be excited about in the pair, they both also need to be patient, as we could be looking at another three or four years before either is ready to for the big leagues.
Mr. Goldstein is a writer for Baseball Prospectus. For more state-of-the-art analysis, visit baseballprospectus.com.