This is my first in a series of looks at the most intriguing — and likely most important — players in the Cardinals’ 2021 spring-training camp. Enjoy…
If only Carlos Martinez could get himself, and the Cardinals, back to the peak years of a flourishing pitching career that held vast promise and wonderful possibilities.
The Cardinals need that version of Carlos Martinez. They need it for their rotation, need it for their depth, need it for their overall quality and stability. And if Martinez can return to his brilliance — uninterrupted by injury, personal static and unnecessary drama — then this will be a stronger team in 2021.
If only Martinez could find the form and the consistency that made him a top 20 MLB starting pitcher in the majors over three seasons (2015-2017) that are too easy to forget now. But goodness … if you’re objective about this when looking back, you will see: Martinez was on the cusp of greatness.
The three seasons covered his age 23 to 25 seasons, and here’s a reminder of what we saw and who he was. This is where Carlos stood among big-league starting pitchers after his 92 starts over three seasons during happier, healthier and better times:
- 10th in bWAR, 12.6
- 10th in wins, 42
- 11th in innings, 580
- 12th in strikeouts
- 17th in ERA, 3.24
- 19th in adjusted ERA
- Made the All-Star team in 2015 and ‘17.
- Held opponents to a .238 average, .310 OBP and .364 slugging pct.
Martinez had his finest season in 2016, going 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA over 31 starts and 195 innings. He finished 5th in the NL (all players) with 6.2 bWAR. And among NL starters only Max Schezer and Clayton Kershaw had more Pitcher bWAR than Martinez.
Think about that for a moment. Less than five seasons ago Carlos Martinez was third on a NL pitcher-value list, hanging with two future, sure-thing Baseball Hall of Famers. But here he is now, in spring training 2021, competing against Daniel Ponce de Leon (and others) for a rotation spot.
Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak obviously didn’t envision such a sequence of events, and the current scenario, when giving Martinez a five-year $51 million contract before the 2017 season.
“This type of contract is all about the future,” Mozeliak said back then. “This is about future earnings, and when you have someone at 25 years old who can hit free agency at 28, his leverage is far different than someone hitting free agency at 32 and not having to earn much at that point. Carlos felt it was important to get something done now.”
Martinez was above average in 2017, pitching to a 3.64 ERA and 3.0 WAR in 32 starts. He set a career high for innings (205) and increased his strikeout rate. But maybe it was too much for Carlos; he began to break down in 2018.
I don’t think we need to go into lengthy review here. But Martinez went on the injured list three times in 2018, missing a total of 49 days. He made only 18 starts that season and was reassigned to the bullpen, making 15 relief appearances in all. He missed 51 days with a shoulder problem in 2019, but pitched well in relief with 48 appearances, 24 saves, and a 2.86 ERA.) Covid-19 knocked him down (36 days missed) last season. The lost ‘20 season included an oblique strain. Martinez contributed 20 innings and was rocked for a 9.90 ERA.
Martinez was effective in relief in 2018-2019 combined — but wandered into too many jams because of a 10.5% walk rate. And as a reliever his strikeout-walk ratio over those two seasons (2.48) was mediocre. Based on that and other metrics, Martinez had an expected ERA of 3.90 as a reliever for 2018-2019.
If Martinez is physically sound, he should be a starting pitcher. Again, in terms of value, this was the 10th-best starting pitcher in the majors over a three-season grid. If a guy like that is healthy and revitalized, you don’t waste that potential value by tucking him into the bullpen and greatly reducing his innings. In his most notable season in relief, 2019, Martinez had only 0.8 fWAR.
The rotation is where his heart is; Martinez all but begs to start. And what’s good for his heart will probably help his head. Martinez is hungry and restless and wants the chance to return to prominence.
The stakes are high for Martinez in 2021. The Cardinals have two option years ($35 million total) on him after this season but must make a decision on his future next offseason. Unless he’s spectacular, the option pick-up is doubtful. And even then, the Cardinals may cut away from Carlos.
Either way, Martinez figures to be highly motivated to thrive in 2021. He should be desperate to reestablish market value in advance of entering free agency. With rare exception, the largest salaries are invested in the rotation — not the bullpen.
After pitching lights-out in winter ball — 11.1 innings, one run, four hits, 15 strikeouts in the Carribean Series — Martinez seems to be in a really positive place right now. The Cardinals should take advantage of that. They have more than enough arms in the organization to cover the bullpen innings. And that bullpen will be shuffled and adjusted and reordered many times this season.
Sure, the Cardinals can put five pitchers in the rotation, bypass Martinez, and give him a seat in the bullpen again. That isn’t the question, the problem, or even an issue.
And sure, the Cards have the depth to fill out a rotation. But except for Jack Flaherty, they don’t have a starting pitcher capable of putting together three consecutive premium seasons the way Martinez did from 2015-2017. Three straight seasons of plentiful, quality, high-value innings… with large-count strikeouts and a ton of ground balls … with the personal wins and the team wins.
If Martinez takes care of business and restores credibility this spring, he should return to the rotation. He’s already stretched out, and that would make him even more ready to roll early in the regular season. There are too many questions concerning the Cardinals’ vulnerable rotation. Martinez should be given the immediate opportunity to answer one of them.
Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend…
Check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.