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J.D. proof that one never knows the future

Astros GM Luhnow reflects on releasing Martinez in 2014
MLB.com @MikeLupica

For all the numbers we have now in baseball, for all who now worship at the Church of Analytics, there is still no number or set of numbers that can measure with any certainty what a player can become. So it was with J.D. Martinez, who right now, this minute, is one of the best hitters in the game, but was released by the Astros in Spring Training.

Things like this had happened before, and not just in baseball, all the way to when Johnny Unitas, who became one of the most famous and accomplished quarterbacks of them all with the old Baltimore Colts, was released by the Steelers before he ever got anywhere near Baltimore.

For all the numbers we have now in baseball, for all who now worship at the Church of Analytics, there is still no number or set of numbers that can measure with any certainty what a player can become. So it was with J.D. Martinez, who right now, this minute, is one of the best hitters in the game, but was released by the Astros in Spring Training.

Things like this had happened before, and not just in baseball, all the way to when Johnny Unitas, who became one of the most famous and accomplished quarterbacks of them all with the old Baltimore Colts, was released by the Steelers before he ever got anywhere near Baltimore.

"The longer you're in our world," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow told me the other day, "the more you realize that the future is far more unpredictable than any of us ever dream."

There is no smarter baseball man working than Luhnow. More than anyone else, he was the architect of the Astros team that won Houston its first World Series last fall. Even in what looks as if the Yankees against the Red Sox will dominate the landscape in baseball across the baseball summer, the Astros still have the best starting rotation, what looks as if it has a chance to be a historically great rotation and as much young talent as the Yankees or anybody else.

And in the spring of 2014, there was an organizational decision that Martinez, who had once come straight to Houston from Double-A ball the way Jose Altuve had, would be better off playing baseball somewhere else.

"[J.D.] came to me in Spring Training that year and said, 'I've made some changes to my swing,'" Luhnow said. "'I want to prove to you that they're good changes."

Bo Porter, the manager of the Astros at the time, gave Martinez 18 Spring Training at-bats. Martinez had been in the organization for five years by then, having been signed out of Fort Lauderdale's Nova Southeastern University, where he'd been teammates with catcher Alex Avila, now with the Diamondbacks. By 2014, he'd had nearly 1,000 plate appearances for Houston, and hit just 24 home runs, with a .687 OPS. Martinez was on his way to Triple-A that spring, with no guarantee that he'd even be a starter there.

"I have never been the kind of general manager who tells a manager, 'You gotta give this guy some playing time,'" Luhnow said. "I hope they ask. But I don't mandate, and never have."

Luhnow didn't mandate that Martinez play. Porter didn't play him. Luhnow sent out an e-mail to the other 29 teams and said that Martinez was available for little or no compensation.

"Crickets," Luhnow said.

The Astros designated Martinez for assignment a few days later. The Tigers called. Al Avila, Alex's father, was then the assistant GM with Detroit, and obviously remembered Martinez from Nova Southeastern. But nobody claimed Martinez. The rest of baseball just waited for Houston to release Martinez.

"I knew Al liked him," Luhnow said. "I knew of the connection between J.D. and Alex. I figured [Martinez] would end up in Detroit. And he did."

Luhnow paused and said, "Listen, there's always one that gets away. Every time I see J.D. now, I give him a hug and tell him how proud I am of him. It's sports, is all it is. In a lot of ways, it's part of the beauty of sports. Believe me, I never thought in 2012 when Dallas Keuchel was 3-8 that in three years he'd be winning the Cy Young Award."

Video: J.D. Martinez named AL Player of the Week

By last year, Martinez was hitting 45 home runs in 119 games with the Tigers and Diamondbacks, one of the most amazing home run seasons, considering he only played 75 percent of his teams' games, in history. This year, he has meant more to the Red Sox so far, way more, than Giancarlo Stanton has meant to the New York Yankees. Martinez has brought the kind of danger to the middle of the Red Sox's batting order that David Ortiz once brought. Of all the star players who changed teams between last season and next, no one has been more important than Martinez, who came into Wednesday's games with a .343 batting average and an 1.073 OPS, 15 home runs and 41 RBIs and 61 hits in 46 games. When they're not talking about Mookie Betts in Boston, they're talking about him.

By the way, after the Astros released Martinez in 2014 and the Tigers signed him, the two teams ended up playing a Spring Training game.

"J.D. crushed three home runs that day," Luhnow said. "The rest is history. He's been hitting them ever since." Luhnow paused once more and said, "Just not for us."

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com. He also writes for the New York Daily News.

Houston Astros, J.D. Martinez