Heading into the 2012 season, Carlos Martinez was the 22nd-best prospect in the game, according to ESPN, and the 27th-best according to Baseball America. He was ranked in everyone else’s top 100 as well, including here. A year later, he was 38th, and 39th. Despite this, the Cardinals have never given him a real shot to prove that he can be anything other than a middle reliever. It’s time someone gave him that chance.
Armed with what has been referred to as two pitches near the top of the 20-80 scale, Martinez has talent that all scouts dream of. And when he reached the majors at age 21 last season, he put it on display. He didn’t get the chance to start, but with the Cardinals in the thick of the playoff hunt, this wasn’t a major surprise. He got one spot start at the beginning of August, didn’t fare very well, and was moved back to the ‘pen. Plenty of hot shot prospects have broken in via the bullpen, and then gone back to being starters when the season starts anew in April. But between the Cardinals’ seemingly crowded rotation and some excellent work as a reliever in last year’s National League Championship Series, Martinez found himself back in the bullpen to start 2014.
This time, he didn’t take to the bullpen as well. Perhaps that is because his manager, Mike Matheny, couldn’t figure out what to do with him. In one stretch in April, Martinez had consecutive gmLI’s of 3.02, 0.52, 0.75, 1.46, 0.14, 2.13 and 0.03. We rail against rote bullpen roles frequently, and with just cause — managers should try to put their teams in the best position possible to win games. But even this approach has its limits. In case gmLI’s are a little foreign to you, here’s what the situation was when Martinez entered the game in those seven appearances:
- Top 7, 1st and 2nd, 0 outs tie game
- Bottom 8, 0 out, ahead four
- Bottom 7, runner on first, 2 outs, ahead three
- Bottom 7, 0 out, ahead two
- Bottom 7, runner on first, 2 outs, down three
- Top 8, 0 out, ahead one
- Top 9, 0 out, ahead seven
You try to make sense of that. Soon after, things stabilized, at least for awhile. But then at the beginning of June, in he came in the fourth inning with the Cardinals trailing by six. Matheny used him everywhere and anywhere, from high-leverage situations to mop-up duty. For a 22-year-old, to not have a routine at all after having a strict routine for years, let’s just say it was probably a lot to throw at him. Martinez managed league average results, almost literally — he had a 98 FIP- from the beginning of the season until June 11. He struck out 9.7 percent more batters than he struck out, but he wasn’t striking out a ton of guys — just a 19.3% K rate.
Then, Adam Wainwright needed to be skipped in the rotation, so Martinez got a start. Wainwright would only miss the one start, but then Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia got hurt within a few days of each other, and Martinez got to stay in the rotation. During that time, he made seven starts, four of which were against the three-best offenses in the National League in the Dodgers, Giants and Pirates. During that stretch, he struck out 34 batters in 32.1 innings pitched. He didn’t do himself any favors with his walk rate, but his defense behind him also didn’t do him any favors on balls in play — to the tune of a .376 BABIP. He won two decisions, against the Phillies and Giants, and lost one, against the Brewers. He wasn’t given much rope either. He didn’t record an out in the seventh inning of any of these starts, and only pitched six innings once.
After those 32.1 innings, he was bumped out of the rotation when Shelby Miller returned. Than a few days later, the team swapped out Joe Kelly for John Lackey and Justin Masterson, and suddenly Martinez found himself back in Triple-A. Rotoworld’s player notes say it was to be stretched out as a starter, and indeed, he did make two starts in the minors, although he was again kept on a short leash. And then, in mid-August, after having been a starter for two months, the Cardinals called him back up to be … a reliever.
He has done much better since being recalled on Aug. 18. He posted a 1.71 ERA and 1.94 FIP down the stretch, and in 21 innings, he struck out 20 and walked just five. The yo-yoing didn’t really stop — he entered in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th innings from his recall to the end of the season — but at least this time Martinez was better prepared for his constantly-changing role.
It didn’t really change in the postseason either. Martinez pitched in three postseason games. He entered Game One of the NLDS in the seventh with the Cardinals down four. In Game Two of the NLCS, he entered in the top of the seventh with the score tied. And in Game Four, he entered in the fifth, with the Cardinals down a run.
You can’t look at this and say that Martinez is unimportant to the Cardinals. But you also can’t say that he is important, either. Trevor Rosenthal is the closer, and Pat Neshek is the main set-up man. Sometimes, Martinez will be the second set-up man. Sometimes, he won’t be. To think that this is the fate of a guy who two years ago was a top-40 prospect is hard to believe. Now, this is not to suggest that Martinez is a five-win pitcher. There are legitimate concerns about his changeup. But he’s had less than 40 innings to prove that it could be even average. And if it is, he might be something special.
Next season, the Cardinals don’t necessarily need him. With Wainwright, Wacha, Lackey, Miller, Lance Lynn, Marco Gonzales, and maybe Jaime Garcia, the team has enough depth in the starting rotation that he won’t be missed. Now, there is an argument to be made for shipping off Lackey and his desirable contract somewhere else (if he’ll go, which he would if he gets a contract extension from his new team) and slotting Martinez in as the number-five starter behind Wainwright, Lynn, Wacha and Miller. But the Cardinals could have done this this year, and didn’t, so that seems like a moot point. Perhaps the team wants to use him as the main set-up man if Neshek walks, but the thinking here is that Neshek comes back. If so, it’s time to trade him.
The Cardinals don’t have an obvious hole in their starting lineup, but they could sure as heck use some depth, and they could definitely try to package some people to get better at spots where they are average. The difference between Yadier Molina and Tony Cruz is chasm-like. It was so large that a crumbling A.J. Pierzynski seemed like a god-send. Their dramatic postseason homers aside, Matt Adams and Kolten Wong are unlikely to be anything other than average, and certainly they need help behind them. Pete Kozma had no business on a postseason roster.
Perhaps Martinez isn’t sent off by himself in order to upgrade some of these middling positions or holes on the roster, but he could be a main piece. There’s still a lot to like. He’ll be just 23 next season, and in his brief time as a starter, he struck out more than a batter per inning. He has been a top prospect, and as we have seen in cases like Devin Mesoraco, it’s folly to give up on top prospects before they’ve really had a chance. With just 117.2 innings pitched in what a season and a half in the majors, Martinez hasn’t really had a chance. It’s time he got one. Free Carlos Martinez!