Outfielder Nick Martini was claimed off waivers by the Padres, the Oakland A’s announced Wednesday. The A’s had designated him for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster for fellow outfielder Seth Brown.
Oakland signed Martini prior to the 2018 season, and he made his MLB debut with the team that June just before his 28th birthday. He eventually earned regular playing time in the second half of the season and put up strong numbers in 55 games, highlighted by an excellent OBP. Due to those on-base skills, the lefty was chosen to bat leadoff in the A’s postseason appearance in the Wild Card Game against the Yankees, where he responded with a 1-for-4 showing on a day when the whole team collected only five hits.
Martini, 2018: .296/.397/.414, 129 wRC+, 1 HR, 11.7% BB, 20.1% Ks
However, he never never really got a chance to follow up his 2018 breakout. Over the winter the A’s signed Robbie Grossman, who carries a similar skill set as a corner outfielder who can offer some OBP from the left side of the plate. Then Martini hurt his knee at the start of spring training, costing him any chance at the Opening Day roster and ultimately keeping him out of action until May.
Despite putting up excellent numbers in Triple-A all year, it took until late July for Martini to get a call to Oakland’s crowded outfield, which lasted all of one day (though he did get to pitch an inning in a blowout). He came back for another two weeks in August, but barely got any at-bats.
Martini, 2019 AAA: .328/.432/.482, 129 wRC+, 8 HR, 14.9% BB, 15.5% Ks
Martini, 2019 MLB: 1-for-11, HR, 2 BB, 5 Ks
A new opportunity arose this week when RF Stephen Piscotty went on the injured list, but the A’s chose to bring up Brown instead of Martini.
Bummer. Last year it seemed the A’s may have uncovered yet another surprise contributor off the scrap-heap, but for whatever reason they just chose not to ever take another look at him. Rather than gamble and find out whether his small-sample breakout was for real, they opted instead to sign a low-ceiling $2 million free agent to replace him.
To Grossman’s credit, he hasn’t been bad. He’s been roughly average at the plate, with an emphasis on OBP, which is exactly what he was expected to do. His .348 OBP is third on the team. And on top of that, he’s been a pleasant surprise on defense, where SABR has him graded as by far the best defensive LF in the AL, and the 12th-best at any position in the AL; UZR also has him as the second-best LF in the majors, and Top 30 overall, and DRS gives him a plus value as well. He’s been exactly the safe, 1-2 WAR player he was supposed to be.
So the question is whether Martini could have been more than that. Let’s begin with a disclaimer: I love Martini and really wanted him to get another chance this year, partly because of his encouraging 2018 and also because I take extra joy in the underdog players making good.
But let’s also not get too carried away here. Martini played 55 games last year, and they were good, but that’s not enough to conclude that he was definitely going to keep being that good. Remember how awesome Danny Valencia looked during a late-season sample of 47 games? How about Jemile Weeks for 97 games in his debut? Heck, Billy Burns was pretty good for a full rookie season. A promising debut is just that: promising. Was he really going to maintain a .379 BABIP long-term?
The fact remains that Martini is a singles hitter who is good at drawing walks. There’s no power, he’s not notably fast, and he’s probably not a plus defender — for what it’s worth, he has heavily negative fielding marks this year in Triple-A. Even if the league never figured out how to adjust to him or shift against him, and he kept reaching base in the majors, would the uptick over Grossman’s OBP be enough to make up for downgrades in defense and (to a lesser extent) power?
As for his numbers in the minors, it’s no secret that the PCL and Las Vegas in particular have been off-the-charts this year. The ball is juiced and the parks are bandboxes and the new Vegas stadium is at high elevation, and all of that is skewing the stats so much that they’re almost not that useful anymore. Martini’s monster line still only scored a good-not-great 129 wRC+, and really it’s even lower than that because it doesn’t adjust for the extra-absurd Vegas park. Corban Joseph batted .371 with a 143 wRC+ and arguably even better plate discipline for Vegas, and so far he’s batting .207 for Oakland (6-for-29).
The bottom line is this: I like Martini and wanted him to be the A’s starting LF this year, but it didn’t happen and the alternate plan turned out fine. He was no sure thing himself, and I’m willing to have some fAith that the A’s had sensible reasons to go in another direction. They also have another eleventy intriguing lefty outfielders to choose from moving forward, several of whom are on the 40-man already. I can understand being disappointed by this result, but I’m not sure it warrants much criticism of the team.
There is one final consideration, though: The dude needs to play, somewhere. He’ll turn 30 next year, and his prime won’t last forever. He earned the hell out of his MLB debut last year, and he’s a viable big leaguer right now — how much longer will that last? As much as I want him on the A’s, I want even more for him to simply be in the majors and make the most of his career. He certainly waited his turn, after all, after nearly a decade in the minors. So, if this transaction leads to him getting a legit September audition in San Diego and a chance at spending 2020 in MLB, then I’m happier about that then I am sad about losing the potential for maybe at-best a 1-WAR upgrade in Oakland’s LF.
Best of luck in San Diego, Nick! Athletics Nation will be rooting for you to keep succeeding and show us what we’re missing out on.