With less than three weeks of Spring Training remaining, the Washington Nationals have filled three of their five spots in their starting rotation. John Lannan, Scott Olsen, and Daniel Cabrera will take the mound for the team's first three games in 2009.
And while former general manger Jim Bowden had several young pitchers lined up to vie for those last two spots, the team preferred to fill out the rotation with veterans, giving the young arms one more year of seasoning in the minors.
With that in mind, Bowden resigned Odalis Perez in February to a minor league contract, though it was assumed that if he pitched as well this spring as he did last year (when he went 7-12, 4.34 for the Nationals) he'd be in the rotation.
And Manny Acta said that if Shawn Hill was healthy—if he could show that he could be counted on for 30 starts—he would without question start for the Nationals too.
Of course, things didn't turn out quite the way the team had hoped. Two weeks after signing his contract, Perez developed an extreme case of "signer's remorse" and refused to report unless he received a Major League contract.
He was released a few days later.
And Shawn Hill, though he pitched well in his two spring innings, continued to have forearm issues, and, in a move that shocked Nationals' fans and players alike, was also given his unconditional release.
So, now what?
Well, "Plan B" becomes the original "Plan A;" that is, to let the kids battle for those last two spots.
Jordan Zimmermann, who the front office believed could make the jump from AA Harrisburg to the big club this year, has been possibly the best starting pitcher in all of Florida in 2009. In 12 innings, Zimmermann has given up just six hits and two walks while striking out 16.
Oh, and he has yet to give up a run.
I think it's safe to assume that Zimmermann has locked up the fourth spot in the rotation.
Colin Balester, who had 15 starts with the Nationals last year (3-7, 5.51), was considered the best bet among the youngsters to win a job with the Nats in 2009 but has struggled mightily this spring, allowing 11 hits and six walks in 11 innings.
He's surely headed to Syracuse to start the season.
Unless the Nationals make a trade for a starting pitcher in the next week or so, that final spot in the rotation will likely go to a 21-year-old from the Dutch island of Curacao, Shairon Martis.
Now, let's cover a couple of important things. First, his name is pronounced "Shy-rone Mar-tis." Second, have you ever wondered why all these big leaguers come from a tiny island that you probably never heard of until Andruw Jones made to the Major Leagues a decade ago?
Curacao, part of the Netherland Antilles, is less than 40 miles from Venezuela. Baseball migrated to the island and is today an important part of their culture.
Andruw Jones. Randall Simon. Jair Jurrjens. Hensely "Bam Bam" Meulens. Wladimir Balentien. All are former or current Major League players who hail from Curacao.
Martis, just 21, was signed by the San Francisco Giants as a non-drafted player in 2005. He joined the team's Gulf Coast League entry and was the dominant pitcher in the league. In 11 starts, Martis went 2-1, 1.85, striking out 50 in just 34 innings.
He was chosen to play for the Netherlands in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, and stunned Panama by no-hitting them in a seven-inning game.
He was just 18 years old.
He started 2006 with the Giants' low-A team in the South Atlantic League and pitched well, going 6-4, 3.40. He seemed to be on a fast track to the Major Leagues, which is why Giants fans were stunned when the Giants traded him to the Nationals.
Jim Bowden had signed Mike Stanton in Jul. 2005 to bolster the team's bullpen during their short-lived pennant run during their first season in Washington. But with the team in the middle of a 30-51 second-half finish, Bowden unloaded Stanton, trading him to the Boston Red Sox for minor leaguers Rhys Taylor and Yader Peralta.
Stanton became a free agent at the end of the season, and after negotiating with several teams, signed with—you guessed it—the Washington Nationals.
This time, Bowden held on to the veteran lefty until mid July, when he traded him a second time, to the Giants, getting Martis in return.
Giants bloggers eviscerated GM Brian Sabean for trading one of the team's best pitching prospects for an aging relief pitcher. Whispers out of the Giants front office in the days that followed hinted that Martis, with a fastball that topped out at just 88 MPH, would never make it to the Major Leagues.
In other words, they really didn't give up anything for a relief pitcher that solidified their bullpen for their pennant chase in the last two months of the season.
And Martis certainly wasn't overly impressive in his first year with the Nationals. He finished the 2006 season splitting time with low-A Savannah and high-A Potomac, going 1-3, 3.60.
He started 2007 with the Potomac Nationals, but the Nationals were ready to send him down to Hagerstown if he struggled early on with the P-Nats.
It never happened.
Martis went 14-8, 4.23 in 27 starts with Potomac. In 150 innings, he had a very good 1.34 WHIP (base runners allowed per inning) and a two-to-one strikeouts to walk ratio.
2008 was another solid season for Martis. He began the year in Harrisburg and went 4-4, 3.98 before being promoted to AAA Columbus, where he went 1-2, 3.02. He earned a call-up to the Nationals in September, and though he didn't pitch particularly well (1-3, 5.66), he showed enough promise to at least be given a chance to vie for a starting job with the Nationals.
So far this spring, Martis has a 2.08 ERA in 13 innings, giving up just 7 hits.
It's no surprise to pitching coach Randy St. Claire as to why Martis has improved so much in the last year. He's gained six MPH on his fastball.
Martis began to top 90 MPH early last year while with Harrisburg and by the time he reached the Nationals, he was routinely hitting 93-94. A mechanical flaw was found and corrected, which gave Martis the much needed boost in velocity.
His scouting report looks promising. TSN.ca says that Martis has a "ton of potential" and projects "above-average stuff" as a middle of the rotation starter.
Martis is 21 and will likely be a Major League starter this year. By way of comparison, John Lannan was a senior at Siena College when he was 21. Scott Olsen, the youngest starter in the National League in his rookie season, was a year older at 22. Daniel Cabrera was playing for Bluefield of the Appalachian League when he was 21.
And even the amazing Jordan Zimmermann is 22.
Martis has the potential to be a consistent 14-game winner for years to come. It's hard to say whether he's old enough, and mature enough, to make that kind of impact in 2009.
But the Nationals aren't going to be ready to contend until 2011, which will give him two years to mature and be ready to help when they make their first real attempt at winning the division.