Caribbean spotlight on Mets' Martinez

Caribbean spotlight on Mets' Martinez

MARGARITA ISLAND, Venezuela -- Mets outfield prospect Fernando Martinez admits that he thought about the possibility of playing in the same outfield as Jason Bay this season.

Now, he's thinking again.

"When [Carlos] Beltran had surgery, I thought I had a chance, and maybe they would give me a chance at center," Martinez said. "But they get [Gary] Matthews Jr., and now I'm not sure where I am. I just can't give up."

Martinez's 2010 campaign could be the most important of his young career. He has the athleticism and optimistic outlook that comes with most 21-year-olds, but he also has the statistics of a young player. In 29 games for the Mets last season, Martinez hit .176 with one home run and eight RBIs. He has shined in the Minor Leagues at times but has also been plagued with injuries during the past four seasons.

The left-handed hitter was named to the All-Star Futures Game in 2007 and '08. In 2006, he was named to the Arizona Fall League All-Prospect Team.

"I know I'm a big league player, and I can perform at a high level," Martinez said. "It's in my hands, so I have to keep working hard and maybe earn a spot. Maybe I make it to the big leagues with the Mets or maybe another team, but I know I can do it. I just have to keep working and waiting for my opportunity."

Martinez has his work cut out for him. He is blocked in left field by Bay for the next four years, and Beltran is signed through 2011. Jeff Francoeur is the Mets' right fielder. Angel Pagan and Matthews will compete for the center-field job.

Martinez's next move? He appears on track to start the season at Triple-A Buffalo for another year of seasoning.

"He's been doing well after he struggled early in the year," said Dominican Republic manager Ken Oberkfell, who also serves as Martinez's manager in Buffalo. "He had some nagging injuries, but he's in better shape. He really had a great Dominican championship. He's been swinging the bat well, and he's ready for Spring Training."

Martinez has some reason to be optimistic. In the playoffs, he hit .387 with two home runs to lead Escogido to the Dominican Winter League title. However, he hit just .191 in regular-season play.

In the first game of the Caribbean Series on Tuesday, Martinez went 0-for-3 in Escogido's 2-1 win against Puerto Rico's Indios de Mayaguez. In Tuesday's nightcap, Mexico's Naranjeros de Hermosillo defeated Venezuela's Leones del Caracas, 7-2. The Dominican Republic squad squares off against Mexico in Wednesday's matinee and takes on Venezuela on Thursday.

"I like this team," Oberkfell said. "They are loose and going to have some fun. I told them to go out and play the game. Whatever happens is going to happen, but I like our team."

Perennial favorites in the tournament, the Dominican Republic team lacks any real star power in 2010, in part because the Licey and Aguilas teams that are usually loaded with big leaguers did not qualify for the Caribbean Series. Instead, this Dominican team is made up of players like Martinez, Ramon Santiago (Detroit), Alexander Valdez (Oakland), Brayan Pena (Kansas City), Juan Francisco (Cincinnati), Freddy Guzman (Philadelphia), Joel Carreno (Toronto) and Wilkins Castillo (Cincinnati). Francisco Liriano (Minnesota) and Francisco Cordero (Cincinnati) each pitched for Escogido during the winter but declined to participate in the Caribbean Series.

Liriano will be missed. He went 3-1 with a 0.49 ERA in seven playoff starts and recorded 47 strikeouts and five walks in 37 innings.

"It's huge when you take the No. 1 starter out of your rotation," said Escogido pitching coach Doug Linton, a coach for the Rockies' Triple-A Colorado Springs team. "Liriano is not only a great pitcher but a quality individual, and you miss that. He helped get us here."

It's been quite a wait.

Escogido's Dominican League Winter League championship is the team's first in 17 years. Moreover, a Dominican team has won the Caribbean Series title 17 times since 1970 and 11 times since 1990. In the 2009 Caribbean Series, the Dominican team from Licey finished 2-4.

"I don't think there's any pressure on us," Oberkfell said. "This is going to be fun. We want to win, but I just want them to enjoy the moment. Pressure is what you make of it. Once the game starts, it will all take care of itself. If we get good pitching and defense, we'll be fine."

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.