Sam Mellinger

Strange tale: How Jose Martinez went from the Royals to the middle of the Cardinals' lineup

Now with the St. Louis Cardinals, Jose Martinez, formerly a member of the Royals organization, is flat-out raking.
Now with the St. Louis Cardinals, Jose Martinez, formerly a member of the Royals organization, is flat-out raking. AP

The beauty of baseball is in the possibilities, the unpredictability. First-round picks can bust and 50th-round picks can star, but even by those everyday standards here comes a standout.

The Royals once had a hitting prospect named Jose Martinez. Everyone called him Cafecito, because his father, Carlos, was called Cafe during his big-league career. Cafecito means, literally, small cup of coffee in English. That's a perfectly sensible nickname unless you actually saw Cafecito.

He looked more like a small forward — 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, long arms and a bit of a wiry body. Wasn't much of a defender, though, had three knee surgeries and didn't hit for power the way you'd expect from a man of that size. That's why the Royals were his third organization over 12 professional seasons without a big-league promotion.

But, man, could he hit the bejeezus out of a baseball. Won the Pacific League batting title in 2015, batting .384. Line drives all over the park, but by then he was 27, old for the league. The Royals were coming off a world championship and particularly loaded with outfielders. Maybe Martinez could play first base, but Eric Hosmer was in Kansas City.

So, in May 2016, when the Royals wanted to promote Whit Merrifield to the big leagues, they made room on the 40-man roster by pushing Martinez off. This is one of those moves teams make all the time, and in the moment, nobody thought much of it.

The Cardinals essentially bought him from the Royals for a small price, thinking they were adding some offense for their Class AAA team. But now that Martinez is raking in the big leagues — he's hitting .288/.359/.456 and batting third for the first-place Cardinals — I asked Royals general manager Dayton Moore about the one who got away.

Martinez is a fantastic hitter, still making close to the major-league minimum with five more seasons of club control. Put him on the Royals, and the future improves.

"I'll take responsibility for it," Moore said. "I just thought we really needed a third catcher."

Moore was speaking off the cuff about something that happened two years and a million baseball decisions ago, so you'll have to forgive him, but he was thinking about the wrong Jose Martinez who went from the Royals to the Cardinals.

The Royals lost to the Orioles 11-6 on Thursday, May 10, 2018 at Camden Yards despite jumping on an early first inning lead courtesy of Salvador Perez's grand slam. It was the second of his career.

Yep. Like we said, this story here is a standout.

The move that came to Moore's mind first happened 175 days earlier. The Royals were a month removed from the parade, hopeful of doing it again, the roster solid and balanced enough to plan for worst case scenarios. One jumped out at Moore.

Salvador Perez was the Royals' star catcher, of course, and Drew Butera a comfortable backup. But if one of them got hurt, the Royals didn't have anyone they could trust to catch in the big leagues. Moore and his assistants liked Tony Cruz, the Cardinals' backup who happened to be the cousin of Royals executive Rene Francisco.

So the Royals called the Cardinals.

"This is weird to say," Cardinals GM Mike Girsch remembers telling a Royals assistant, "but we'd consider Cruz for either of your Jose Martinezes."

Yes, the Royals had two.

One was a shortstop, and just 19, a good defender with the kind of bat scouts sometimes refer to as a lottery ticket — long odds. The other was eight years older, but a proven minor-league hitter who projected as a bat off the bench in the majors.

"Very different players, very different profiles," Girsch said. "But roughly similar values in our eyes."

Even with a stack of younger and more athletic prospects ahead of him, the Royals didn't want to trade a guy coming off a Class AAA batting title, and besides, they'd grown to love Cafecito's way.

"He's the type of guy you don't like to give up," Moore said. "He's happy all the time, plays hard, has fun playing. You enjoy watching him perform."

So, Girsch and the Cardinals accepted the other Martinez — referred to in his retelling of the story as "young shortstop Jose Martinez."

That Martinez has hit .219 with two homers across two levels of Class A ball the last two seasons. The lottery ticket has not yet cashed.

But, roughly six months after the Cruz trade, the Royals promoted Merrifield to the big leagues. To do so, they had to clear a spot on the 40-man roster. At virtually any other moment in the last 30 years, the Royals would have had plenty of space for a hitter like Martinez.

But those were heady days, the farm system already making it difficult for Martinez to get regular at-bats in Omaha. The Royals had Jorge Bonifacio, Brett Eibner, Reymond Fuentes and Merrifield who could play the outfield. Martinez's profile — below-average athleticism, below-average defender — didn't fit what the Royals wanted to be.

He was the right guy at the wrong time.

"That's a good way to say it," Moore said. "There wasn't any room for him. The way we were built at the time. If Jose Martinez is in our system right now we wouldn't think about (letting him go)."

Maybe it helps that Merrifield has turned into a good player, a foundational piece for the future. At least the Royals didn't let Martinez go in favor of a bum.

But, man, Martinez is raking. Entering Friday, he was hitting .308 with a .378 on-base and .499 slugging percentage in 467 plate appearances for the Cardinals. That calculates to a higher adjusted OPS than anyone the Royals have had in that time, and tied with Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo and Gary Sanchez for 20th in baseball among players with at least 150 games.

The Cardinals called immediately after the Royals designated Martinez for assignment, but to be clear, they didn't know what they were getting any more than the Royals knew what they were giving up.

Both teams saw him similarly — a proven minor-league bat who could help a big-league team off the bench.

"Got lucky that it turned into something more than we expected," Girsch said.

For Moore, the experience reinforced a scouting emphasis on the importance of going against conventional wisdom. The model, is how baseball people sometimes say it.

He believes this is a hole in both analytics and traditional scouting — undervaluing players who've bounced around, are too old for a particular level in the minors, or otherwise don't fit the ideal prospect profile. Pitcher Jason Adam is a good recent example for the Royals. Merrifield too, actually.

"These are typical players the San Francisco Giants win with every year," Moore said.

So many factors had to be in place for this story to happen. The knee surgeries and lack of athleticism diminished Martinez's shine as a prospect. His third organization put a particular emphasis on athleticism and had a roster heavy at his position.

The Royals had a particular need (third catcher) at a particular moment (world champions trying to do it again), and of 29 other teams saw the Cardinals as the best fit. Maybe that gave Girsch and his staff a refresher on the Royals' system, coming close to acquiring one Jose A. Martinez and then taking the other six months later.

"Yep," Girsch said. "Same middle initial, too."

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