ST. LOUIS — One of my favorite things to do these days is remind Cardinal Nation why they shouldn't give up on Carlos Martinez, easily St. Louis' most polarizing pitcher.
He's Harrison Bader on a pitching mound, with fans awaiting a new hairdo or extra flash on the field to turn them off for an entire season, even bypassing cool stuff like ERA, strikeouts, WAR and overall viability. When you stare deep into their respective stats, a useless player is not found. Just one that the fanbase wanted to be something else, or more. They want Bader to be Jim Edmonds and Martinez to be Adam Wainwright; neither will ever happen. Sorry.
But Martinez, nicknamed "Tsunami" for reasons that extend more or less beyond a baseball field as well as his performance on it, can still be an asset to this team. Useful and worthy in ways that other players on the active roster are currently not. For example, who do you place more chips on right now: Martinez or Miles Mikolas, who was scratched from a spring start before Nolan Arenado could even collect a hit? The answer should be easy.
One of them has over three years of quality rotation work, while the other has just one great season. One is currently dealing with a nagging injury, while the other is already buckling the knees of his teammates. One thrives on hitters making mistakes, while the other throws baseballs that move in mysterious ways. With no disrespect to the Lizard King, he's on the downside of all those comparisons. Here's another thing: Martinez is making $11.7 million in 2021, while Mikolas is making over $16 million to try and be a No. 3 starter.
The young arm won't make that kind of money for another year, or will he? Martinez will turn 30 near the end of this season, but will find himself hedging his bets on the Cardinals picking up his 2022 option-which will run the team $17 million, against a $500k buyout. Remember, it was a few months ago that John Mozeliak let back-to-back Gold Glove winner Kolten Wong walk, and he was only set to make $12.5 million.
If I was a betting man, I'd say 2021 is Martinez's final year in St. Louis, so let's make it count.
With the acquisition of Nolan Arenado, and more upgrades required before World Series odds improve for St. Louis, the Cardinals won't be picking up his option. Unless a Cy Young year occurs or he returns to his 2017 starting ways, the birds on the bat will leave #18 this year at some point.
Let's face it. Martinez has never lived up to the standards fans built for him many years ago. They forget he has been shuffled between bullpen and rotation work, filling in nicely in 2019 when Jordan Hicks went down. Martinez saved 24 games and posted a 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings that season. He did what the team needed, all the while battling his own maturity levels off, and sometimes on the field of play.
It's no secret he can be a problem child, and seems to repeatedly find himself in bad decision territory. Forget the footage of him riding around his hometown without a mask on this past fall, and remember what Yadier Molina said a few years ago. When asked what separated Martinez from Cy Young status, Molina simply said: "mentality." It's that mentality that will dictate where his career goes after age 30.
There's still hope. More than most Cardinal rotation candidates. For example, Martinez is technically more proven than Jack Flaherty, who has put together two very credible seasons, including an insane 2019 finish. Martinez posted a 3.22 ERA/3.58 FIP over four seasons, covering 2015-18. He only allowed 60 home runs in 698 innings during that span. He won 50 games, which isn't the proudest stat, but shouldn't be completely discarded. And while a walk problem doesn't go undetected, his lifetime strikeouts to walks ratio is 2.58.
Here's how I think the Cardinals will, or should, deal with the Martinez situation.
They don't trust him at all to be consistent or do all the little things that keep starters reliable to their employers, but he still has arguably the best stuff on the team. With Molina around to guide him, Martinez will start the year in the rotation, but here's the catch: piggy-back his starts with Alex Reyes.
Each pitcher has their own troubles and self-imposed roadblocks over their checkered careers-but each has potentially lethal arms. Martinez can have trouble going deep into a game, so let him finish 5-6 innings, and then Reyes follows with three of his own frames. That way, you prepare for a Martinez trade by building up Reyes' arm strength without rushing back into a full-time starter or bullpen role. He is also younger than Martinez, and hasn't burned all his goodwill with the front office. Not yet. If Mo and company do make a trade for more offense this summer, Reyes will be ready to take over that spot, or he too will find himself in the bullpen or traded too.
A lot of spots are not up for grabs on this team. Third base, first base, and catcher among them. The rotation, though, is anything but set. Carlos Martinez may have ruffled the feathers of Cardinal Nation, but there's still a chance for him to make a dent on the field, even if his future impact will be felt elsewhere. Only time will tell and it's still cold outside, so be patient.
Just remember this: Carlos Martinez may be polarizing, but he's still an asset to the Cardinals. His arm, age, and experience suit this 2021 team.