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Richie Martin’s offensive breakout and the potential dividends for the Orioles

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Richie Martin’s glove has never been a worry. Whether the growth of his bat maintains is a story all its own.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Oakland Athletics Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

While other organizations may view the Rule 5 Draft as a formality, utilizing the annual event has become a key strategy for the Orioles organization. Even more, those taken in recent years by the Orioles in the Rule 5 Draft tend to garner their own weird sort of cult following. And by cult following I mean me.

From Ryan Flaherty and T.J. McFarland, to Anthony Santander and Pedro Araujo, the Orioles haven’t shied away from picking players cast off by other ball clubs. And maybe it’s just me, but I tend to root a little harder for the Rule 5 guys. As is mandated, Rule 5 players must remain on the roster of the drafting club for the entirety of their immediate season, which also means a positive performance makes them more likely to stick.

Players left to be taken in the Rule 5 draft are essentially cast-offs or victims of a numbers game. The Orioles, a team that has taken at least one player in the major league phase of the Rule 5 Draft every year since 2006, have benefited little from those picks.

Orioles Rule 5 Draft Picks (2006-18)

Year Player Position Drafted Year fWAR Career fWAR
Year Player Position Drafted Year fWAR Career fWAR
2006 Alfredo Simon RHP N/A 1.8
2007 Randor Bierd RHP 0.1 0.1
2008 Lou Palmisano C N/A N/A
2009 Ben Snyder LHP N/A N/A
2010 Adrian Rosario RHP N/A N/A
2011 Ryan Flaherty INF -0.5 1.1
2012 T.J. McFarland LHP 0.4 1.2
2013 Michael Alamanzar 3B N/A N/A
2014 Logan Verrett RHP N/A -0.7
2015 Joey Rickard OF -0.3 0.6
2016 Aneury Tavarez OF N/A N/A
Anthony Santander OF 0.1 -0.3
2017 Nestor Cortes Jr. LHP -0.3 -0.3
Jose Mesa Jr. RHP N/A N/A
Pedro Araujo RHP -0.6 -0.6
2018 Richie Martin INF N/A N/A

As you can see, there’s little to speak about other than Ryan Flaherty’s defensive versatility, Joey Rickard’s rare offensive surge, and T.J. McFarland’s appetite for innings. There’s a reason players are left to be taken as Rule 5 picks, though for Richie Martin, the story is an atypical one.

Selected 20th overall by the Athletics in the summer of 2015, Martin is a plus-athlete whose defensive work has sustained over the course of his four minor league seasons. As far as his niftiness with the glove goes, there is little worry that Martin can’t play a serviceable middle infield as of this moment.

Martin’s bat, though, is a commodity of less certainty.

In over 1,500 minor league plate appearances, Martin has recorded only a .706 OPS, as his sense for the strike zone has been unable to overcome his lack of thump with the bat. Without more offensive production from a first round pick, the Athletics are somewhat excused for making Martin available. Plus gloves are always on the market at every level of baseball, and the ex-Florida Gator wasn’t showing the needed growth at the plate to warrant his return.

But he had to have made it a tough decision, right?

Last year, his second full season at Double-A, Martin posted an .807 OPS, while his slugging, BABIP, and other true outcome numbers all reached levels of new inspection. Excitingly, his pull rate rose from 37% to 42%, while his line drive and fly ball totals reached new bests. To me, these are signs of better pitch recognition and better timing, with more barrels finding greener pastures.

The A’s finally got the offensive boost they were looking for, but in the end, the Orioles are now employing a player with a set of tools that have a made a jump. Oh, and yeah, those tools are about to—well, definitely should— get playing time.

Richie Martin’s minor league path is somewhat reminiscent of DJ Stewart’s. Both saw slow offensive starts burst their respective reputations, though they both made a comeback. Their path towards mechanical refinement has also had its similarities.

This is the Martin of four years ago, a college middle infielder with an OPS of .829 that walked as much as he struck out. He was a baller, and when you look at him at the time he was a plus-prospect, there’s a lot to like about his swing. You see the athleticism in his hands, a crisp bat path, and an efficient barrel through the zone. Much like Stewart, however, Martin wasn’t getting enough out of his legs, and both the A’s and Orioles convinced the two to get taller in their stances.

Whereas the Orioles closed off Stewart’s front side, the A’s saw Martin open up, literally and figuratively. At some point in the not-so-distant past, he introduced a leg kick and divorced from a toe-tap that looked tough to replicate. He also let his hands go free, creating a more diverse swing.

Martin went from being a hitter who was maybe TOO mechanical, to a player now swinging without as much restriction. Given the spike in his offensive production a season ago, we may be able to say that Martin has found comfort in his renovated approach to hitting, especially as he showed more consistent pop and managed to hit the baseball to left field with more regularity. He probably made a lot of pitchers mad last season. I mean, look at that guy ^.

However, Martin’s lone season of offensive success will be nearly impossible to immediately replicate, as he leaps up two levels of the best baseball in the world. But you take him into spring training understanding that he’s making strides, and there is a chance for those strides to bound even further.

If Martin does continue an upward trajectory in his offensive game, then the Mike Elias regime will have stumbled upon a gem in plain sight. Can you imagine a potential doubles machine whose speed and glove make him an everyday player of impact? Even better, he’ll have new eyes on him, and from everything we’ve been told, this Orioles staff and its future plans ooze of positive player development.

If not, then Martin’s current tools, as Elias detailed to Baseball America, make him a bench player with “the versatility and speed you look for in that player.” As we’ve seen with other Orioles Rule-5ers, there’s an impact to be had that way, too.

Playing time will come with expected lumps, but Martin isn’t alone in that regard. He’s one of many players that this rebuild will afford an opportunity. What that opportunity brings is what makes all of this more fun than it should be.