Jeremy Martnez is one of two catchers in the Cardinals' major-league spring camp just nine months after being drafted out of college. (Steve Manuel, State College Spikes)

By Rob Rains

JUPITER, Fla. – At this time last year, Jeremy Martinez was trying to pass a real estate finance class at USC. Andrew Knizner was worried about the class in quality control as part of his major in industrial engineering at North Carolina State.

Neither could have predicted that 12 months later they would be in adjacent lockers as non-roster catchers in the Cardinals’ major-league spring camp.

Now they are students in a different discipline, trying to soak up the knowledge of professors Yadier Molina and Carson Kelly, who even though he is only a few months older than Martinez and Knizner, already is in his fourth major-league spring training.

“It’s life stuff, and a lot of baseball,” Martinez said of what he has learned so far. “I can already see how much better a catcher I am mentally and physically. The attention to detail, all of the small stuff you don’t normally get to see. Once you learn it and feel it, you see there’s a reason Yadi is the best.”

What has Knizner learned so far?

“Baseball skills, which I expected to learn, but the thing that has really stood out to me especially with Yadi is the mental preparation and mental focus during drills, during practices, during games,” Knizner said. “It’s something I’ve never seen before. Coming up through college guys were focused but it wasn’t all in. When you get older you realize your physical skills are good but it’s your mind that needs to focus in to take you to the next level. I notice it with Yadi every day.”

The Cardinals selected Martinez in the fourth round of last June’s draft and added Knizner in the seventh round. Both helped their teams to respective league championships at State College, Pa., and Johnson City, Tenn.

Martinez hit .325 with 32 RBIs in 57 games as the Spikes won the New York-Penn League title while Knizner led the Cardinals to the Appalachian League title with a .319 average and six homers, driving in 42 runs in 53 games.

A third catcher in camp for the first time, 19-year-old Dennis Ortega, a native of Venezuela, also earned a ring on the short-season level last year as he helped the Gulf Coast League Cardinals win that championship with a .357 average.

“I think back a couple of years ago and I was in their shoes,” Kelly said. “It (the camp) was going so fast and there was a lot of information. You’ve just got to take it all in and understand you are going to get thrown a lot of things. You’ve got to take it step by step.”

Kelly’s best piece of advice that he has shared with all three catchers actually came from his dad – about keeping handwritten notes every day about what he learned. That started his first year of pro ball after he signed out of high school, when he was a third baseman, before he converted to catching.

The relationship between Kelly and Martinez actually dates back several years, to when both were in high school – Kelly in Oregon and Martinez in southern California – but became teammates on Team USA.

“He was catching and I was pitching and playing all over the place,” Kelly said. “I’ve known Jeremy since we were 16 or 17 years old. We just took different paths.”

Those paths have now converged with the Cardinals, and Martinez has relied on his friendship with Kelly to help in his transition to the professional level.

“I actually reached out to him my junior year in college just because I knew what he was doing and asked him what he was working on, and how could I get better,” Martinez said. “He gave me a bunch of stuff and it helped me. After I got drafted he taught me more about the Cardinal way. He and Yadi have just been awesome.”

Knizner did not have that background when he was drafted, but he, Martinez and Ortega have bonded after working together in the Instructional League last October and at various performance camps over the winter.

Molina has helped cement the friendship between all of the young catchers by taking them out to dinner.

Another ex-catcher, Mike Matheny, has been impressed by all three, but particularly with Ortega, considering he is the youngest player in the camp.

“Normally I wouldn’t even think of throwing a 19-year-old kid in these games but he was unfazed,” Matheny said. “He’s got some impressive skills.

“Most young catchers don’t get to play at all. They are here for the experience and the majority of their work is going to happen in the cages early on. That’s not the case this year, especially as we lose Yadi and (Alberto) Rosario to the Classic. These guys are going to play. It’s a learning camp all the way around. We do a lot of instruction but I’d say our catchers get as much work and attention as anybody.”

That is fine with all three. Ortega, who speaks only limited English, is learning just as much as Martinez and Knizner.

“Coming in I looked at it as a great opportunity for me to learn from these guys, and to really get some good information that I can take and hold onto throughout my career, which has been true,” Knizner said. “I’ve learned a lot. This has been a really important step for me.”

It’s safe to say both Martinez and Knizner are working toward having just as much success in this classroom as they had on their college campuses last year.

Knizner, who earned a 3.93 grade point average in industrial engineering through his first three years in college, got an A minus in his quality control class, which involved a lot of statistics, he said.

Martinez has one semester left to finish his degree in real estate. He earned a C plus in that real estate finance class, blaming it on how much time he missed while traveling with the baseball team.

“Don’t tell my mom,” he said of his grade, “but at least I passed.”

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