Introducing “The Olive”

Daniel Nava was an early example of “The Olive.” (Courtesy of Keith Allison)

I often think of origin stories — the beginnings of superheroes or folk heroes or anti-heroes we tell ourselves over campfires, through book pages, or by way of streaming service. The stories worth telling are usually those with compelling origins, any action past the beginning just icing our interest. We salivate over the mystery of Jon Snow’s genesis, wonder at the novelty of Supermans or Spidermans or whatever other sui generis idea Stan Lee cooked up.

Baseball, too, loves an origin stories. Yasiel Puig — the Wild Horse — escaped Cuba by nightfall, zig-zagged from Cuban cops and embarked on a journey with wanted fugitives to make it to Mexico. Bryce Harper, the wunderkind, hit baseballs nearly 600 feet in the Las Vegas heat and finagled his way around baseball’s draft rules to get to the show a couple years earlier. Even Willians Astudillo, known as La Tortuga and our current folk hero in residence, toiled across the minor leagues — overlooked by prospect evaluators for his body, his lack of tools — while continuing to cultivate his own superpower, an absurd propensity for contact hitting. These are baseball’s Jon Snows, its Super- and Spidermen — heroes with reputations that fold their every action into part of the growing legend.

Nick Martini, supposed 2019 Oakland A’s starting left fielder, has no origin story, at least not one that we think we should care about. He doesn’t even have a ready designation. He’s not a star, a prospect, or a role player. He’s not a sleeper or a post-hype prospect. He’s just a guy, formerly an “org guy,” like Astudillo but with less hoopla, who figures to start on Opening Day for the Oakland Athletics.

Over at Baseball Prospectus, Ginny Searle wrote of Oliver Drake and the idea of a pitcher who is disposable but necessary to keep around, ostensibly “the 40th man” but now “The Drake.” She writes: “What is the Drake? The Drake is a player who could conceivably be designated for assignment one day and picked up by any team in the league the next; the most expendable player who nevertheless seems to always end up back on a major-league roster.”

I can’t help but think that the Nick Martinis and Willians Astudillo’s of baseball — the players who defy the odds on their way to putting up 0-2 WAR a year for a few years in their late-20s and early-30s — need their own name. Astudillo has his legend and adoring cult following, but Nick Martini deserves something, even if it’s just a new bit of baseball nomenclature. I propose “The Olive.”

In its 2019 Annual, Baseball Prospectus lists three comparisons for Nick Martini: Jake Goebbert, Mike Edwards, and Daniel Nava. In terms of ability and relevance to our greater understanding of baseball prospecting, Goebbert and Edwards are the more enlightening picks. Neither made much of themselves at the major league level, but acquitted themselves quite nicely in Triple-A. They are prototypical org guys.

But neither Goebbert or Edwards ever won an Opening Day major league starting job as Martini is expected to do. So we turn to Daniel Nava, an org guy who actually hit it big.

Nava has an origin story. Unable to make the Santa Clara baseball team as a college freshman, he became an equipment manager. He transferred to a junior college his sophomore year for financial reasons, but started playing again and played so well that Santa Clara brought him back on a full scholarship.

Nava went undrafted — 50 rounds and 1,502 players selected in 2006 but not a Daniel Nava among them. He kept at it, playing so well in independent ball that the Red Sox signed him from the Chico Outlaws for $1.

Then, finally, after tearing up the minor leagues for two years, Nava got the call in 2010 and hit a grand slam in his first major league at-bat. His breakthrough moment came later, though, as he struggled through the rest of 2010. Making it back to the bigs in May of 2012, Nava stuck for most of the year and started as the Red Sox DH in the second game of 2013, playing 130 games for Boston that season.

Driving home the relative nothingness of Nava before he got his shot and seized it, in July of 2012, Matthew Kory wrote this for Baseball P: “Daniel Nava was a 28-year-old in Triple-A who hit .268/.372/.406 last season. Yeah, there’s some on-base ability there, but he was 28 and in Triple-A. That doesn’t say prospect. In fact, it doesn’t say much at all. Nava was so nothing to the Red Sox that they didn’t invite him to spring training this season.”

Nick Martini, while not nearly as extreme a case of nothingness as Nava was, started 2018 as a 27-year-old in Triple-A who hit .303/.394/.436 the previous season. There was some on-base ability, a high batting average, but he was 27, almost 28, and in Triple-A. No one considered him a prospect. The Cardinals let him leave through minor league free agency.

Luckily for Martini, A’s general manager David Forst was paying attention.

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“With a guy like Martini and Anthony Garcia, we thought they could be big leaguers because of what they’d done,” Forst told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser for her 2019 A’s Annual essay.

Garcia, another former Cardinals outfielder and minor league free agent who the A’s picked up before 2018, makes a nice corollary to Martini. Across 13 minor league stints at various levels since 2009, the 27-year-old has recorded a wRC+ below 100 only three times.

And yet, he never got the call last season. Steamer projects no playing time for Garcia in 2019 either. Baseball Prospectus didn’t even give him a lineout in the back of its A’s preview. Most of the 27-year-olds in Triple-A are just org guys after all.

Kendall Graveman took the mound for the Nashville Sounds nearly two months after he had been the A’s Opening Day starter. It was a week before my 23rd birthday, and the opportunity to see Graveman toe the mound against Freddy Peralta, the Brewers’ young righty who had struck out 13 Rockies across 5.2 innings in his major league debut 11 days before, was too much to miss.

Graveman had a rocky start to the game, hitting the first batter but escaping the inning unscathed; Peralta matched the A’s starter when he walked his first batter on four pitches. Nick Martini, hitting leadoff and playing first for the Sounds, jogged to first.

Intrigued by the name (who wouldn’t be?), I looked up Martini’s stats. He was a 27-year-old non-prospect who had spent six years with the Cardinals organization before electing minor league free agency and signing with the A’s before 2018. Across 11 stints at different levels over those six years, only three times had Martini recorded a wRC+ below 100. Martini could hit, really hit, in the minors, but for whatever reason, be it body type or speed or defense or slow hands, no one thought it would be worth anything at the highest level.

Nick Martini was an org guy I figured out. One of those Quad-A-but-not-really players who remained in Triple-A purgatory, hoping to get a shot at the bigs, but the team kept him around to serve as a warm body for the real prospects coming up the line.

I wondered, as one six years removed from any shot at a sports career might, what kept Martini going. It was clear he would never be a long-term option for the A’s or anyone else, and with minor league pay the way that it is, he couldn’t be making a solid living. Passion is a fickle word but it’s the only one that could possibly apply.

Graveman gave up a two-run homer in the second inning, and the Sounds failed to push a run across against Peralta, who struck out eight. It was the final game Graveman pitched in 2018 before Tommy John surgery.

What is the Olive?

The Olive is a Quad-A player who has never appeared on a top prospect list, not just an overall Top-100, but even within his own system. He’s in his late 20s or early 30s, perennially the third or fourth guy in line to get the call if someone goes down. He’s toiled in Triple-A for years. The Olive, when he does get the call, does well enough for fans and management alike to expect him to have a role again.

In 2010, Daniel Nava was just a feel-good story. In 2012, he was an Olive.

Why the Olive?

Well, of course it’s Martini related. A Martini consists of two things: Five parts gin (or vodka) and one part vermouth. A Dirty Martini adds a little olive brine and an olive garnish.

Any functioning team with aspirations needs its above-average regulars. It needs its five parts of alcohol; the guys who will get the job done and keep the team running for a full season. It also needs a superstar to set it apart from the run of the mill. It needs a face, some vermouth to transform it from a glass of gin to a capital-m Martini.

Those teams, while functional, are boring. The best teams add a little more, a splash of league-average olive brine to truly elevate the roster. And to touch it all off, the Olive. A non-essential addition, but one which, without it, the whole feels incomplete. A garnish of unobjectionable aesthetic, signaling that this team has so much moxie, charisma, chemistry, what-have you; that it can turn a nothing ingredient into something vital or be willfully discarded.

The Olive can be the bow or the gift wrap; the final touch or the last impediment before better things.

Nick Martini and Willians Astudillo both project to be Olives. Daniel Nava was an Olive. Even Oliver Drake was briefly an Olive in 2017 before he became a Drake in 2018.

The Olive is a silly name, yes, and perhaps too readily created for Mr. Martini. He could, in theory, make the A’s Opening Day starting lineup and then quickly fade out, and watch as Dustin Fowler or Mark Canha or perhaps even Franklin Barreto take his spot. But for the moment at least, Nick Martini deserves some recognition.

This time last year, Nick Martini was nothing. He was reassigned to minor league camp on Sunday, March 18, getting cut from the Opening Day roster before Canha and Fowler. Martini may lack the intriguing, exciting origin story of Astudillo and Nava, but should he stick it out with the A’s, at least he will have something named for him.

References and Resources


Wes Jenkins is a staff writer at Redleg Nation and freelances when he can. You can follow him on Twitter @_wesjenks or check out more of his writing on his website, wesjenks.com.
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CL1NT
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CL1NT

Awesome stuff!!

I had wondered about Nova and where he was…

Ryan
Member
Ryan

Really unfortunate that he hurt his knee and won’t likely make the opening day roster. I really think he has more potential than Robbie Grossman, the replacement they signed in his place. Great article, I really enjoyed reading about these guys getting some love.

Eric Robinson
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Member

This was a fun article. I hope olive catches on in the baseball lingo world

Joser
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Joser

Seeing the headline (and only the headline) over at FG, I of course wondered what “the Olive” could possibly refer to. I see now it’s a natural nickname for Martini, but in trying to generalize it I think you missed the opportunity for a wonderful callback to a famous baseball quote. To extend that quote: your winning team may need a Reggie Jackson to be “the straw that stirs the drink,” but that cocktail still isn’t complete without an olive.

AlbaNate
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AlbaNate

The Mets had an olive in TJ Rivera, who like Nava was undrafted and struggled even to make a college team. He was great for the Mets down the stretch in 2016 and started for them in the playoffs. And he was pretty good in 2017 too, but then he got hurt, and has not yet made it back, missing all of last season. The Mets recently released him.

john
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Member
john

Yes, this was inspiring. Is it possible this could develop into a Fringe Five R2 ongoing feature ?