Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Revisiting the Red Sox' last great, MLB ready hitting prospect

There has been a lot of talk about Xander Bogaerts and his upside, and rightfully so. As a 20 year old he destroyed AAA, held his own in the regular season hitting .250/.320/.364, before becoming an onbase machine in the playoffs, posting a .412 OBP to go with his .482 slugging. Coming in to this year, Baseball America ranked him as the #8 prospect in the game. His spectacular season, coupled with some graduations and disappointments, has him in the running for the #1 spot overall. It has been a little while since the Red Sox had such a highly regarded hitter ready to contribute at the major league level, and I thought it would be interesting to take a look at past top prospects.

Who it isn't
As I made this only about hitting prospects, we can leave out Clay Buchholz (#4 in 2008) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (#1 in 2007, but he doesn't really count as a prospect anyway).  Jon Lester didn't even crack the top 20 at his peak (#22 in 2006). Recently departed center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury reached #13 in 2007, but failed to be a top 10 prospect. Nor is it anyone who is still in the Red Sox organization. Dustin Pedroia, perhaps the best player on the Red Sox team right now, topped out at #77 following the 2005 season. Baseball America would probably like to have that one back, but there were real concerns about Pedroia's size, ability to generate any power, and his rather unorthodox "swing as hard as I can but still make contact all the time" approach. I think those things led some folks to wonder if he could hack it against major league pitching. Thankfully, they were wrong.

Hanley Ramirez is probably the closest "obvious" name out there. He was ranked #10 by Baseball America for the upcoming 2005 season, but after scuffling in AA, I think it would be a stretch to call him a consensus major league ready player. Granted, he went on to be an instant star for the Marlins, but I don't think anyone saw that coming, maybe even the Marlins.

So who is it?
You'd be forgiven if you had forgotten about this player, as his Red Sox career lasted for 0 at bats (major or minors) from December 8, 2005 to January 27, 2006, and he hasn't really done anything to be memorable since then. Andy Marte was the #9 prospect per Baseball America following his dominant season at AAA as a 21 year old third baseman (sound familiar?). Marte's main tool was power having hit 60 home runs over the past three minor league seasons, despite being extremely young for each league and regularly moving up the system. Although he struck out a bit (21% of his at bats in his final year at AAA), he also had a good batting eye, drawing almost as many walks. A good eye and prodigious power led many to label him as the next great third baseman. Baseball America went a bit further, writing:

The best prospect in baseball and a future superstar. As a 20-year-old toiling in the mostly hitter-unfriendly Southern League, Marte hit .269/.364/.525. In only 387 at-bats, he smacked 52 extra-base hits. He's got monstrous power and a broad base of hitting skills. In his prime, expect a few seasons of Adrian Beltre, circa 2004. 

Acquiring Marte
Perhaps the most amazing part of the Andy Marte story was how little it took to get him - disgruntled, underperforming shortstop Edgar Renteria plus $8 million to cover part of the remaining $29 million on his three year deal. Granted, this was before baseball revenues skyrocketed with the license to print money that is Major League Baseball Advanced Media as well as unbelievably lucrative local TV deals, but the Red Sox had turned a bit of cash and a miserable player, both on and off the field, into one of the very best prospects in baseball. The excitement reached extremely high levels almost immediately. Gammons wrote an extensive profile on Marte (which appears to have been lost to time in the Ancient Baseball Column Graveyard), but one line does stick out in my mind - In years to come, that offseason would be remembered as the year the Red Sox acquired Andy Marte, rather than Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell.

A rather brief Red Sox tenure
Well, a month and a half later Boston sent Marte to Cleveland as the centerpiece of the Coco Crisp deal. Needing a centerfielder to replace Johnny Damon, who had signed with the Yankees a month earlier, Andy Marte was on the move again. Marte opened 2006 in the minors, but was called up in July. After hitting well in the minors, he struggled in the majors, only hitting .226/.287/.421, a line that is even worse than it would be today, given the high scoring environment of the mid-2000s. This set up an unfortunate, but consistent pattern. Marte would hit extremely well in the minors, only to struggle at the major league level. For his career, he was a .218/.277/.358 hitter in the majors, a far cry from his .273/.345/.477 minor league line, and even. Despite being one of the  youngest players at every stop of his minor league career, Andy Marte just failed to continue developing. After another failed stint in Cleveland, the Indians released him, and the Pirates snagged him and put him in AAA. After finally not hitting in the minors too, Andy Marte was out of American baseball for the 2012 season. In five short years he had gone from can't miss superstar to someone not worth keeping around at AAA.

A career rebirth?
Still only 30, Andy Marte is not giving up on a major league career. After a short stint in the Independent League (not affiliated with the MLB minor league system at all) where he hit .301/.367/.526, Marte was signed by the Angels as a minor league free agent. He continued to hit well for the Angels AAA team, posting a .362/.398/.574 line with 6 home runs in only 94 at bats. It remains to be seen whether Marte can build on  his 2013 success and return to the majors. Red Sox regular Daniel Nava went from an Independent League all star to major leaguer, so it can be done. The Angels aren't particularly deep at third, so if the newly acquired David Freese struggles or gets hurt, Marte could get a shot there. Alternatively, he could see time at first or DH depending on where the Angels want to play Pujols. Currently, JB Schuck is listed as the primary DH so that isn't exactly a huge road block.

Update, 12/21/13: Apparently I misunderstood his contract status, as Marte just signed a non-guaranteed deal with the Diamondbacks.With Goldschmidt at first and Prado at third, Marte is pretty solidly blocked for the time being.

In general, the Andy Marte story is a reminder that even at the upper most levels of the minor leagues, there is no such thing as a "can't miss prospect". If you were going to build a prototypical slugging third baseman, he'd have looked an awful lot like Marte, and at every stop of the way, all Marte did was hit. For whatever reason, Marte couldn't translate that success to the majors. Hopefully, that won't be the case with Bogaerts, but as the hype machine gets going, don't forget that there is a risk with any prospect.


  1. I suppose that is always the risk with prospects, especially those that are valuable for being young for their level. I would have to guess that such prospects have a very high ceiling (see Harper, Trout, and Machado for recent examples) but also a very low floor, like Andy Marte. The one thing that gives me hope about Bogaerts is his ability to adjust. Andy Marte never had to make serious adjustments to his game until the big leagues, where he fell pretty flat. Interestingly, looking at Marte's numbers, they're not that different from his best AAA season with the Indians in 2009 so I'm not sure he's made any adjustments.

    With Bogaerts, on the other hand, he has a few things going for him. First of all, he wasn't traded twice. It's never a good sign when a top prospect is traded that frequently, so you'd have to assume the Red Sox and Braves saw something they didn't like. Second, Bogaerts has had to make some pretty major adjustments. In the low minors he walked a fair amount (8-10%), but on the jump to AA he had one walk in 97 PA. The following year he focused on being more selective, ad his walk rate jumped back up to 13.7% and has remained in the neighborhood of 10% at AAA and the majors. I suppose the other difference is the success at the big league level, which Marte never had.

    I'm mainly just trying to come up with ways/reasons how this time it's different, but hopefully it makes sense.

    1. I wasn't trying to compare Bogaerts and Marte, really, but rather revisit the Marte story. I think it is unusual for such a highly regarded prospect on the cusp of the majors totally fall flat (Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak are a couple of names that come to mind), but found it interesting that one of the last was briefly in the Red Sox system.