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Rays hoping Felix can hack it

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- He doesn't have the power of superstar Alex Rodriguez. Doesn't hit for a high average like matinee idol Derek Jeter. Doesn't have the overall offensive abilities of Nomar Garciaparra. Or, for that matter, Miguel Tejada, Alex Gonzalez, Royce Clayton, Deivi Cruz, Mike Bordick, Omar Vizquel, Cristian Guzman, Benji Gil (Benji Gil!) or any other shortstop in the American League.

Felix Martinez measures up in other ways.

Acquired on waivers in April and installed as the Rays' starting shortstop after the May 25 release of Kevin Stocker, Martinez last season emerged as one of the most spectacular defensive players in the league.

Which was a good thing, because he proved to be one of the least productive offensive players.

Martinez's .214 average was the lowest of all American League players with at least 300 plate appearances. His .193 average with men on base was second worst in the league. His .101 average from the right side was, well, a mere seven singles from being triple zeroes.

Martinez says, "I'm a better hitter than that," and the Rays hope he's right. They are working with him extensively this spring, trying to find ways to increase his offensive contributions so they can keep his defensive brilliance in the lineup.

You can marvel at his range and acrobatic moves, and watch his highlights reel in awe, but the best measure of Martinez's valuable contributions might be this: The team ERA dropped from 5.77 in April-May to 4.43, third best in the league, after he took over.

"I don't think it's any secret our statistics pitching-wise were as good as they were the last four months of the season because of what Felix did at shortstop," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "This is the first spring training we've been able to watch Felix on a day-to-day basis, and he's truly one of the fine defensive players in the game.

"With that said, he's got to continue to develop at the plate. He's got to be a player that does all the little things we ask him to. If he's asked to drag bunt, he's got to drag bunt. If he's asked to sacrifice bunt, he's got to sacrifice bunt. If we ask him to hit-and-run, he's got to hit-and-run. That execution has to continue to improve.

"And he's got to get his share of hits in tough situations. I don't think he's ever going to hit for a tremendous average, but if he can do the little things we ask and in the seventh, eighth, ninth innings with a man on second base and two outs come up with that clutch hit, then I think he'll be an everyday player for years to come in the major leagues. If not, then you have a defensive specialist, and you have to ask the question how much offense can you give up. I think Felix will decide that for us."

Martinez is confident better stats are ahead. He is still relatively young, 27 in May, and inexperienced. The 106 games he played last season were nearly twice as many as he had in parts of three seasons with the Royals.

He is learning what he needs to do at the plate, and, as important, what he can do. His focus, he said, is on moving runners and scoring.

"When I go to the plate, I'm trying to be on base," he said. "I'm not worried about getting a hit or not. I'm trying to be on base. A bunt, a walk, someone missing the ball. No matter what."

Martinez experimented with batting exclusively left-handed in winter ball, but he was not comfortable against left-handed pitchers.

He plans to stick with switch-hitting, hoping to get the .101 right-side average closer to his .248 mark from the left side.

"If I can hit .220 right-handed, I can hit .250 for the whole year," he said. "I think I can hit better than .250 if I keep working at it."

With the impressive offensive achievements of Rodriguez, Jeter, Garciaparra, Tejada and others, some say this might be the golden age for shortstops.

But Martinez has different ideas. The shortstops he enjoyed watching are Edgar Renteria and Felix Fermin. The one he most closely aligns himself with is Cleveland defensive wizard Omar Vizquel.

"I remember watching Vizquel when he was with Seattle and he was hitting .220, .230," Martinez said. "Now he's hitting around .280."

Not bad inspiration.

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