Compared to baseball's formative years, the amount of turnover on an average Major League Baseball roster nowadays is quite astounding. For instance, three of the four players in the Tigers' infield on Opening Day in 2013 are no longer with the organization. The fourth is now playing a different position and, at this moment, is not a lock to be healthy for Opening Day in 2015. However, previous updates on his offseason surgery indicate that he has a good chance of being in the lineup.
That said, the Tigers' 2015 infield looks to be set in stone. Cabrera and Ian Kinsler will man the right side of the infield, while shortstop Jose Iglesias will play as many games alongside sophomore third baseman Nick Castellanos as his legs will allow. The greatest uncertainty -- aside from Iglesias' embattled shins -- is whether Andrew Romine or Hernan Perez will be the utility infielder.
Non-roster invitee Jefry Marte is not a utility infielder. A third baseman from the Dominican Republic, Marte's glove has been questioned almost as much as his bat. Marte is a veteran of seven minor league seasons, but is still only 23 years old. He does not have much of a shot at making the Tigers' Opening Day roster -- he's marginally closer than the catchers -- but there's always the chance that he puts everything together and has a breakout season. Until then, he will provide some infield depth for the Tigers in the minor leagues, where they are a bit thin at the corners.
Where did he come from?
Marte was signed out of the Dominican Republic by the New York Mets in 2007. He posted an impressive debut season in the Gulf Coast League, hitting .325/.398/.532 in 177 plate appearances as a 17 year old. Baseball Prospectus rated him as the #94 prospect in baseball heading into the 2009 season, writing that he had "true impact offensive potential, along with the athleticism and arm to stick at third" in their annual publication. He flopped in his first season of full-season ball, hitting just .233/.279/.338 in 526 plate appearances. The Mets had him repeat that level in 2010, and he improved his OPS by over 100 points in an injury-riddled season.
Still only 19 years old heading into the 2011 season, Marte struggled offensively at High-A St. Lucie. He hit .248 with a .313 on-base percentage and 31 extra base hits in 537 plate appearances. However, just as his prospect stock was falling again, Marte had a breakout performance in the Arizona Fall League. In 94 plate appearances before he broke his wrist, Marte hit .333/.436/.538 with four home runs and 12 walks to just 12 strikeouts.
Neither Marte's patience nor his power quite carried over to Double A during the 2012 season, and he hit .251/.322/.366 in 513 plate appearances for the Binghampton Mets. The big league Mets left him unprotected during the Rule 5 draft that offseason, but later traded him to the Oakland Athletics for outfielder Collin Cowgill. Marte's numbers improved at Double-A Midland in 2013, where he hit .278/.349/.380 in 278 plate appearances. He dropped off slightly in 2014, hitting .259, but drew walks at a career-high 9.8 percent clip. Despite the improved plate discipline, the A's cut him loose after the season. He signed with the Tigers in November and was one of 17 non-roster invitees to spring training.
Thanks to his upbringing in the Mets' farm system -- more specifically, the New York media market -- there is plenty of free information available on Marte. Amazin' Avenue ranked Marte as their #21 prospect in the Mets' system prior to the 2012 season. Rob Castellano had this to say about Marte's potential after a stellar appearance in the 2011 Arizona Fall League.
Scouts marveled over his raw hitting ability and suddenly Marte's stock as a pure right-handed power hitter was once again rising. Unfortunately he broke his wrist before the end of the season but he'd already done enough to once again make people wonder. I'm still a little more on the short side with him right now as his fielding is still a question mark and I've got to see at least one full good season before I buy in; but even I will admit that the talent is clearly in there somewhere.
"He's a young kid with a lot of potential with pretty good strength and good bat speed," Powell explained. "He's a lot like the other kids here, he just needs a little fine-tuning...He got a 1-0 fastball up in the zone and he put a good swing on it to left-center field," said Powell, a former Major League outfielder. "He's been swinging the bat well and he came through with a big hit for us today. I see a kid that has got really good bat speed and gap-to-gap power. He just needs to be more confident."
Baseball Prospectus wasn't so kind after his 2012 season, publishing the following player comment in their 2013 preseason annual.
Marte was once a highly regarded prospect and is now merely regarded. Warily. The Mets have worked with him on his plate discipline, but the effects of such teaching are nearly invisible in his stat line: Walk rate and isolated power aren't improving, and while he is striking out less, his batting average hasn't changed because of a decline in BABIP. Factor in poor defense at third (though his error rate is improving) and it's fair to wonder, no matter how young Marte is, how exactly he's going to conjure up a major-league career. Shipped to Oakland in the offseason, Marte is out from under the shadow of David Wright and now has a clearer path to a future job at the hot corner, though his odds of landing such a gig remain slim.
The consensus on Marte throughout his progression through the minor leagues is that he has excellent bat speed thanks to a large, athletic frame. He has plenty of raw power, but his hit tool has not progressed to the point where he is able to tap into that power in game situations, even in the hitter-friendly Texas League. His plate discipline is improving -- he has upped his walk rate from 8.4 percent to 9.8 percent in the past three seasons -- but he still struggles with pitch recognition.
What should we expect from him?
There are some things to like about Marte, which is why he has been (and will be) given plenty of chances to succeed at the minor league level. You can't teach bat speed or raw power, and Marte has both. His plate discipline is getting better, but he still has not been able to figure out Double A pitching, let alone plus arms at the major league level. There is always a chance that he turns into the next J.D. Martinez and lights up the American League with a breakout season -- he's still three years younger than Martinez was at this time last year -- but these type of performances don't happen all the time. Some players are never able to fully tap into their raw talent, and Marte may be one of those guys.
While the Tigers may have found themselves a long-term project, his 2015 outlook is relatively bleak. Marte will start the year in the minor leagues, and barring the miraculous J.D. Martinez breakout detailed above, will likely end the year in the minors. The Tigers don't have many options at third base in the upper minors, especially with any sort of upside. Marte also represents a bit of insurance in case of an injury to Nick Castellanos, though Perez or Romine will likely get the first crack at the job.