Richie Martin made big improvement in second half; what does that mean for 2020?

There was just one position this year where the Orioles used only two players for the entire 2019 season, and that position was shortstop. Rule 5 pick Richie Martin made 90 starts at short and Jonathan Villar made 72.

For Martin, that was the third-most shortstop starts by a rookie in Orioles history behind Cal Ripken Jr. with 91 in 1982 and Ron Hansen with 149 in 1960.

But the immediate future of the position in Baltimore is uncertain. Villar could be retained, offered arbitration and wind up at short. Or he could be non-tendered or traded, and maybe that opens the door further for Martin.

Martin-From-Box-Gray@HOU-sidebar.jpgBut now that Martin’s Rule 5 requirement is met, he can be optioned to the minors. So, does he play in 2020 at a level he’s not yet played at: Triple-A?

The Orioles’ starting shortstop for next year might not even be on the roster yet. Or there could be a spring competition that includes Villar, Martin, new players and/or some combination.

Martin, who turns 25 in December, was originally drafted in the first round (No. 20 overall) by Oakland in 2015 and signed to a bonus of $1.95 million. But he batted .237, .235 and .234 in his first three pro seasons. That changed in 2018, when he hit .300/.368/.439 at Double-A Midland in 118 games.

Baseball America rated Martin as the Athletics’ No. 5 prospect at the end of 2015, No. 9 a year later and No. 23 at the end of 2017. After the Orioles selected him as the No. 1 pick in last December’s Rule 5 draft, the publication rated him as the Orioles’ No. 14 prospect.

The Rule 5 draft was an obvious spot for the rebuilding Orioles to add talent, and they did that with Martin. Now he can be sent to the minors and has three options remaining.

Martin played in 120 games with 309 plate appearances for the Orioles, batting .208/.260/.322 with eight doubles, three triples, six homers, 29 runs, 23 RBIs and 10 steals in 11 tries.

Martin made significant improvement on offense as the year went on, maybe as much as any player on the roster. In the first half he hit .166/.226/.282 with a .507 OPS. In the second half he batted .284/.321/.392 with a .713 OPS. In 17 games in September, he hit .379/.400/.655 with an OPS of 1.055.

Batting just .156 as late as May 19, Martin was at .200 for the first time on Sept. 6. In the season’s last two games, he went 4-for-8 with a double and homer to raise that mark from .200 to end at a season-high .208.

Manager Brandon Hyde often spoke about Martin’s offense in relation to his ability to get around on and consistently contact a premium-velocity fastball. As he warmed up to hitting better fastballs, Martin’s stats improved.

“He works under the ball a little bit, but there are some reasons why,” Hyde said. “He’s late getting down a lot of times and the first move, not to get too technical, is underneath the ball. The more we can get him on time, the more the swing will flatten out. If you watch his BP, he drives the baseball. And it’s not lifting the baseball, hitting high flies. He drives the ball on a line to all fields. So, you see the strength and the raw power.”

Defensively, Martin showed decent range and a plus arm, according to my eye test. But defensive metrics don’t say the same. Among American League shortstops with 300 or more plate appearances, Martin ranked 17th out of 21 players (Villar was 13th) in FanGraphs.com’s defensive rating.

So, one question for the 2020 Orioles is whether Martin will continue his major league education and development with big-league-only time. Or will some Triple-A reps be beneficial? Did Martin show enough on offense in the second half to be the regular shortstop next year? If 2020 is still about developing young players, could more minor league at-bats and defensive reps be helpful for Martin?

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