Former First-Round Pick Martin on Verge of Breakthrough

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 4, 2009 12:10 AM

Just about the only thing left for starting pitcher J.D. Martin to improve upon this season is his level of competition. On Thursday, Martin, 26, was one of three Class AAA Syracuse players -- along with second baseman Seth Bynum and outfielder Jorge Padilla -- elected to the International League all-star team.

This year, Martin, in his first season with the Washington organization, has been among the most dominant pitchers in baseball, no matter the level. In each of his past seven starts, he's allowed either one or zero earned runs. He has an 8.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio. (For perspective, only three major league starters, Dan Haren, Roy Halladay and Zack Greinke, have strikeout-to-walk ratios above 6.00, and none is as high as Martin's.)

But Martin, for all his numbers, remains a curious case. A supplemental first-round draft pick (35th overall) by Cleveland in 2001, Martin has never pitched in the big leagues. He's already aged beyond ideal prospect years, and he's stuck in an organization loaded with young pitching talent. He doesn't throw all hard, relying on his cutter and his command. Even this offseason, when the Nationals signed him to a minor league deal, he was seen as little more than Class AAA depth.

Those in the front office who've seen Martin, though, believe he's made himself a candidate for a September call-up. Especially if he continues his dominance from the first half.

At the end of a respectable 2008 season with the Cleveland organization, Martin was released. He'd gradually lost the first-round glimmer: He had elbow problems in 2003, then Tommy John surgery in 2005. The injuries forced him to become a different pitcher.

"I feel like I can make adjustments now," said Martin, who throws his fastball between 85 and 90 mph. "I can read hitters' swings. And now it's just throwing strikes. I have great fielders behind me this year, and that just gives me so much confidence."

Draft Signings

The Nationals yesterday signed fourth-round pick A.J. Morris (RHP, Kansas State) and 10th-round pick Paul Applebee (LHP, UC Riverside). With Morris in the fold, Washington has signed its four highest draft picks, excluding No. 1 selection Stephen Strasburg.

Movement in the Lineup

With new leadoff man Nyjer Morgan available for the first time, the Nationals placed Nick Johnson back in the No. 2 spot, mostly because Johnson's patient approach will give Morgan a better window for base-stealing. Cristian Guzmán, who had batted either first or second in every game he had started this year, was dropped to sixth.

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