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The strange Red Sox history of Cardinals flamethrower Carlos Martinez

10.23.13 at 11:22 am ET
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In early 2009, the Red Sox believed they had uncovered the proverbial diamond in the rough, the type of talent who represented the payoff for the hard, sometimes exhausting work of scouting the sometimes murky international landscape. At the time, the team had found a slight 6-footer with the sort of athleticism and quick, loose arm that permits room to project, and to dream. He was already throwing 89-91 mph, perhaps topping out at 92 mph, with the ability to spin a breaking ball and a solid feel for a changeup.

This was a 17-year-old pitcher who already had an impressive three-pitch mix but also possessed considerable upside given that his yet-to-fill-out frame and arm action suggested that there was a velocity bump coming, with the idea of 95 mph comets seeming like a fairly easy projection. And best of all: He remained relatively undiscovered. This was a coup for Craig Shipley, then the Red Sox vice-president of international scouting, and his department’s staff.

The Red Sox signed Carlos Matias for a modest bonus, with multiple industry sources suggesting that the team was able to bring the right-hander into the fold for just $140,000. He reported to their Dominican Academy to start his professional career. But four weeks later, what seemed like a very promising start to a Red Sox career was derailed in dramatic fashion.

While Matias’ background appeared to check out in the Red Sox’ internal investigations pre-signing, a red flag emerged as Major League Baseball conducted its standard background investigation prior to the finalization of a contract for an international amateur. Matias’ name at birth, it was discovered, was Carlos Martinez, thus raising broader identity concerns — including over his date of birth — on the part of MLB. His deal with the Sox was voided on the basis of the identity fraud. Matias — or Martinez — was suspended for a year, unable to sign with any teams.

During that time, as the investigation transpired, Matias continued — at least for a time — to work out at the Sox’ Dominican academy. The matter of his name was subsequently cleared up with the revelation that the young pitcher had assumed the surname of the uncle who became his guardian after his mother passed away in his infancy. There may have been, according to sources, some slight discrepancies in terms of the pitcher’s date of birth, but they weren’t considered significant.

Ironically, it was the period of suspension — ostensibly, his punishment — that ensured that Martinez would soon become very rich. He was no longer flying under the radar. To the contrary, he was now on the map as a prospect for several teams, with his stature in the international market growing rapidly thanks to the fulfillment of much of what the Sox had projected for him, easily reaching velocities of 95-plus mph with his fastball while spinning a power curveball.

“He was throwing every bit like a first-rounder,” said one international talent evaluator. “He projected to what [the Sox] thought he was going to be.”

Martinez represented an electric arm, and now a known one. And so, while he was suspended, other organizations quietly (and unofficially) were lining up to bid for his services.

The Sox were well aware that this was taking place. And there were members of the front office who wanted to see the team get involved.

But Shipley, in his time in charge of the Sox’ international signings, was fairly steadfast about walking away from players who had inaccuracies or falsifications in their documentation. The idea that Martinez might benefit from having been suspended was one that rankled Shipley. He felt that the Sox should get the pitcher on the terms to which they’d already agreed with him or not at all, consistent with an approach that multiple industry officials characterized as morally commendable but somewhat impractical given the widespread issues of documentation with top international talent.

There was also a practical/logistical component to the Sox’ determination that they shouldn’t bid on Martinez.

“MLB said that he wasn’€™t who he said he was, and there was a chance he was a little older,” noted one official involved in the Sox’ scouting process with the pitcher. “With the suspension, that made us kind of have a red flag and think he wasn’€™t going to be able to get the visa. … If he wasn’€™t going to get the visa, we weren’€™t going to give him the money.”

The Sox did lodge a protest with baseball, seeking to enforce the contract that Martinez originally signed with the Sox. But the league turned it down, and the Sox sat on the sidelines as Martinez — who solicited the help of an attorney to assemble all of his necessary documentation to pass muster with both MLB and U.S. consular officials — signed with the Cardinals for $1.5 million in 2010.

And so, the Sox have been left to watch Martinez’s meteroic rise through the Cardinals system from afar, seeing him emerge as a pitcher capable of dialing up triple-digit velocity with his fastball with swing-and-miss secondary stuff. The exercise has been a frustrating one.

“I didn’€™t think it was right,” said one industry official. “He becomes a free agent and gets rewarded for the identity issue.”

And now, Martinez — who earned a promotion to the big leagues this year after forging a 2.69 ERA with 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings in his four minor league seasons — looms as a potentially significant presence in the World Series, for the Cardinals and against the franchise with whom he originally signed. The 22-year-old showed swing-and-miss stuff (24 punchouts, nine walks in 28 1/3 innings) during his big league debut in the regular season, and now he’s emerged as a key late-innings contributor for St. Louis in the playoffs, pitching in the eighth inning of all four Cardinals wins in the NLCS, tossing 4 2/3 shutout innings in which he allowed just one hit and one walk while punching out four.

“We needed somebody to step up,” said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. “We had a little bit of a change at the back end [of the bullpen], and we needed [closer] Trevor Rosenthal to get to the ninth [inning], and somebody has to be able to get the ball to him. It typically isn’t something you expect a winning team to do in September, but we were in a spot. We needed somebody, just like we said earlier, here’s an opportunity, who is going to run with it? We put Carlos in some pretty high leverage situations and he did well. Next thing you know a higher leverage position opened up, and we put him in there and he continued to do well.”

If he shuts down the Sox in the late innings of the World Series, then Boston will be left to rue what could have been.

“I’€™m sure Boston would want him in the bullpen right now,” said an industry official. “It was a good scouting job by the Cardinals. … They put a lot more on the market to sign this guy, and it looks like it’€™s going to pan out for them.”

While the Red Sox do look back on the loss of Martinez with some regret, they do have some consolation in the form of another signing in 2009 that has been able to make an impact in their organization. It was, after all, later that year that the Sox under Shipley added Xander Bogaerts, who may well have the opportunity to face Martinez as the series unfolds.

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