Once upon a time ... in St. Louis, Carlos Martinez started games for the Cardinals. In a galaxy not so far in the past, he was a top-flight starter with knee-buckling stuff.
I'm not talking about a flash in the pan single-season teaser trailer. Right down at Busch Stadium, Martinez dazzled from 2015 to the middle of the 2018 season, when a shoulder injury derailed his season.
Let me refresh your memory a little bit. Here's what Martinez did from 2015-17:
2015: He started 29 games, pitched 179.1 innings, and posted a nasty 3.01 ERA/3.21 FIP. The latter stat shows you what the pitcher does without the help of his defense. Martinez struck out 184 batters and was an All Star. His season was cut short due to a shoulder strain. You may remember the young man walking off the field with his glove covering the tears streaming from his face. If he's healthy, the 2015 NLDS ends differently.
2016: Martinez started 31 games and pitched 195.1 innings, striking out 174 batters and posting a filthy 3.04 ERA/3.61 FIP mark on the mound. He maintained a 1.22 WHIP.
2017: Martinez makes 32 starts, pitching 205 innings and striking out 217 batters. The ERA/FIP split is 3.64/3.91. The former number rises, but it stays even closer to his FIP number, meaning he's getting more swings and misses from hitters. He's an All Star again.
2018 is where the problems start. Martinez went down on May 10 with a lat strain, and then he was initially diagnosed with a right oblique strain on July 20 before the injury was clarified as a right shoulder strain on July 31. All in all, Martinez made 18 starts and 15 relief appearances. In these 15 bullpen outings, Martinez held hitters to a .177 batting average and .525 OPS. As a starter in 2018, Martinez's ERA was 3.41 and he held hitters to a .668 OPS.
All the while, Martinez's mentality was called into question by various members of the media and the team, including his battery mate, Yadier Molina. When 2019 came around, Martinez didn't even start the season with the team, going down with another right shoulder strain.
When he finally arrived on May 18, Martinez was used out of the bullpen for a little over a month. That's when Jordan Hicks went down with Tommy John, and before long, Martinez was the closer. He accumulated 24 saves, posting a wicked 2.86 FIP mark with 53 strikeouts in 48.1 innings. Some of the outings were rocky, but short bursts aren't exactly his style.
Why am I telling you all of this? Context is a juicy element in this particular story. So, over the past four seasons, whether mostly as a starter, Martinez has been very good. The only thing getting in his way is a pesky shoulder and perhaps a few more mental hurdles. If he comes into spring training with a clean bill of health, he'll be the team's second-best starter behind Jack "My Right Arm Is Registered Doom" Flaherty.
Martinez is entering the bigger dollar portion of his contract and will still make just $11.7 million in 2020. That's just $4 million more than guaranteed healthy scratch Brett Cecil. Martinez has one more guaranteed season of $11.7 left before option seasons of $17 and $18 million come up. If he is anywhere close to as valuable as he has been in recent seasons, those salaries will be met with performance. If not, a $500,000 buyout awaits both player and team in 2022 and 2023.
Here's the thing. Martinez can be better than Madison Bumgarner for $6 million less in 2020. He's two-plus years younger than the new Arizona Diamondback and has a pitching arsenal that's just as wicked as Zack Wheeler or Bumgarner. While those two guys were cashing in on contracts of $85 and $118 million, Martinez is simply waiting for his shoulder to sort itself out. If Instagram, the new player workout check-in device, is any proof, Martinez's shoulder looks sound. He's not taking the rehab lightly, learning a tough yet viable lesson each offseason.
I know what comes with the word "IF:" massive skepticism. Can he finally sort it all out and be the ace that many hoped he would be? I have news for you. Warts and all, that frustrating pitcher was still pretty good for the Cardinals these past four seasons. Martinez will never be an ace pitcher. It's just not happening, and it's fine. He isn't paid like an ace, so it's not something you should worry about. His contract, options and all, takes him through his age-31 season. Around that time, a pitcher earns an identity.
Martinez should only hope to attain an ID that reads health in body and mind. Shoulders heal with proper treatments and regimens. Minds are trickier. If he can navigate the terrain, which is steep in this supposed juiced ball era, he can still be a deadly weapon for St. Louis. All hope shouldn't be lost.
If it's lost, show me the proof. Show me where Martinez has gone so wrong. Good luck. Please don't mention his mound demeanor or hairstyle. Let's get real and be adults here.
Let me turn to the esteemed Zach Gifford, formerly with Birds on the Black and probably one of the smartest pitcher minds on Twitter. I mean, Michael Girsch probably has cue cards in his pocket of stuff Gifford wrote. Here's what he had to say about Martinez on a recent thread I started about the embattled pitcher in regards to comparisons to Bumgarner: "Martinez has the edge in WAR, ERA, FIP, and xFIP since 2017 and 70 less innings."
Carlos Martinez was a very good starter once upon a time. He could be again. For being such a polarizing topic in St. Louis, he sure has some nice seasons under his belt.
What will he do next? I'd stay tuned, because he's far from done.