Martin aims to remain healthy

Martin aims to remain healthy

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- The goals are more simplified, the expectations more structured.

After everything he's gone through the last few years, right-hander J.D. Martin doesn't have his mind set on eye-catching numbers and a quick ascension through the Minor League ranks.

His hopes are of the meek and humble variety.

"I just want to stay healthy," Martin said. "That becomes your No. 1 priority -- staying healthy and getting a lot of innings in."

Innings and health have not been the 24-year-old Martin's specialty since 2005.

It was relatively early in that season that Martin, the 35th overall pick out of Burroughs High School (Calif.) in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, first felt the twinge in his elbow that would lead to the ubiquitous Tommy John surgery -- a procedure that can temporarily, if not permanently, stop a career dead in its tracks.

Getting on track after the ligament transplant surgery was, as anticipated, a test of patience for Martin. He missed the entire second half of '05 and the first half of '06, yet he was not absent the confidence that he'd soon be back on the mound, slinging up the numbers that had made him one of the Indians' top prospects.

"I knew I just needed to do what I needed to do to get back," Martin said. "That's all that went through my mind."

On the Indians' mind was the enormous potential Martin possesses. It was reason enough to believe the early medical setback wouldn't be enough to deter his career.

In his first professional season at Rookie League Burlington in 2001, Martin went 5-1 with a 1.38 ERA in 10 starts. He overmatched his competition, striking out 72 batters in 45 2/3 innings.

That promising start foretold of a Minor League career that has seen Martin go 39-22 with a 3.62 ERA in 103 games, including 101 starts. He's struck out 463 batters in 524 innings, walking 143.

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"He has a great pitchers' mentality to attack hitters," director of player development Ross Atkins said of Martin. "He gets guys early in counts. He has one of the best pitchers' makeups in our organization because of his confidence, approach and professionalism."

The question now is whether his arm will hold out.

Thus far, Martin hasn't had any major setbacks in the wake of the surgery. He came back last season and made a virtual tour of the lower levels of the Tribe's Minor League system, starting six games at Mahoning Valley, five at Lake County and two at Kinston. Along the way, he went 1-2 with a 2.03 ERA in 44 1/3 innings.

Most importantly, his stuff was still intact.

Martin's best pitch is his curveball, which retained its devious spin. And his fastball, which previously topped out in the high 80s, actually went up a notch, sneaking into the low 90s.

"Honestly, I was pretty confident I would come back strong," Martin said. "I worried a little bit about having setbacks here and there, which is normal. Fortunately, I haven't had any yet. My elbow felt good all year, really. Everything started to come around at the end and started feeling really good."

The Indians felt good enough about Martin to add him to their 40-man roster last winter, sparing him from the Rule 5 Draft. He was chosen over right-hander Jim Ed Warden, a quality relief prospect who ended up being grabbed by the Phillies.

Martin has remained in the Tribe's sights because of his potential to someday help out in the big-league rotation.

"Being put on [the 40-man roster] is a big deal to me," Martin said. "It gives me a little more confidence in myself."

That confidence has revealed itself in big-league camp, where Martin turned in a pair of scoreless innings and struck out four batters in his first two Grapefruit League games.

When the season starts, it's likely the 6-foot-4, 195-pound Martin will find himself in the Akron rotation. His elbow will still be watched closely, but the reigns are slowly coming off.

"His pitch count will be slightly less than the organizational policy," Atkins said, "but nothing that would really affect his performance or his ability to get a win."

In looking for those wins, Martin wants to get his fastball and changeup working for him this season, even though the curve is what got him to this point in his career.

"I've learned how to pitch with my fastball a little more and use less breaking balls," Martin said. "That's better for my arm, too."

And at this stage in his career, the health of that arm is Martin's greatest concern.

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