Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. In case you missed it, here are the prior entries.
25. Todd Stottlemyre
24. David Freese
23. Andy Benes
22. Lance Lynn
21. Paul DeJong
20. Tommy Pham
19. Darryl Kile
18. Ryan Ludwick
17. Kolten Wong
The volume of discourse surrounding Carlos Martínez, dating back to when he was a teenage prospect called Carlos Matias, has been firing at full speed for a decade now. His popularity rating among St. Louis Cardinals fans has had the highs and lows of the 1920s stock market. And yet, Carlos Martínez has had a pretty typical career as a Major League pitcher.
There was a sense, when Carlos Martínez came up to the St. Louis Cardinals as a fireballing 21-year-old reliever, that he was either going to become the Pedro Martínez of his generation, a high-upside closer who lights the world on fire for a brief period of time before burning out in a blaze of glory, or an aggravating bust, and now that Martínez has arrived at Major League Baseball middle age, it is safe to conclude that none of these happened. In 2013, Shelby Miller was supposed to be the safe starting pitcher and Carlos Martínez was the guy to provide instant gratification for pitching-hungry Cardinals fans, and in reality, nearly the exact opposite happened.
The 2013 Cardinals were overflowing with exciting pitchers, all of whom came through the minors as starting pitchers but some of whom, out of necessity, couldn’t stay there. Shelby Miller looked like a starter, hands down. Michael Wacha and Joe Kelly might end up relievers, but for the time, they were starters (the former would mostly stay in the rotation; the latter went on to his greatest MLB success coming out of the bullpen). Trevor Rosenthal had already been shuffled into a premier relief pitching role, and while he could theoretically move to the rotation, there wasn’t really an opportunity available for him. Carlos Martínez was the great wild card. And while his 5.08 ERA wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire, Martínez had a FIP two full runs lower. And he was only twenty-one years old for almost the entire season.
Save for two starts in AAA Memphis, Carlos Martínez spent the 2014 season with the Cardinals. He was, primarily, a relief pitcher, but he made seven starts. His ERA improved from 2013, but Martínez didn’t quite click as the expectations of him suggested he should. He was a wilder pitcher, striking out more but walking more, and his luck with batting average on balls in play remained horrendous. It was going to be difficult for Martínez to find an opening to the rotation, as the Cardinals had six starters definitively ahead of him on the rotation depth chart–Adam Wainwright, John Lackey, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Jaime Garcia, and Shelby Miller.
The circumstances which allowed Carlos Martínez his chance at the rotation, however, were unspeakably tragic, ones so perverse in ways which disproportionately affected Martínez himself that it’s uncomfortable to even mention them. The death of Oscar Taveras, Martínez’s best friend in professional baseball, in October 2014 created a void in right field for the Cardinals which was filled just a few weeks later, before most Cardinals fans could move past considering the loss of life and into thinking about the loss of a projected starter. But in order to acquire Jason Heyward, the Cardinals had to trade Shelby Miller. While this left the Cardinals with five qualified starters who ranked above Carlos Martínez on the depth chart, most sixth starters eventually make a significant contribution due to injuries, and indeed, Jaime Garcia began the 2015 season on the then-Disabled List.
For 2015, Carlos Martínez, who had changed his uniform number from 44 to 18 to match that of his late friend, became the closest thing to rooting for Oscar Taveras. Jason Heyward, perfectly pleasant man that he was, was a stranger who did not have a relationship with Taveras, but Martínez hoped to embody what Taveras would become. At no point, despite his lack of MLB success to this point, did Martínez have a higher approval rating among fans. It was unknown what Taveras would become–he struggled mightily with power, plate discipline, and fielding in the big leagues in 2014, but he was a consensus top-five prospect in the sport prior to the season. Perhaps he was a future franchise player and perhaps he was never going to materialize as a particularly good player. Sadly, we would never get the chance to learn.
Martínez began 2015 as nominally the Cardinals’ fifth starter, but one who could occasionally appear in relief (he did so in the first game of the season). But he quickly established himself as a worthy full-time member of the rotation. The entire rotation pitched well, so it seemed as though Martínez would still be the one relegated once Jaime Garcia returned, but a late April injury to Adam Wainwright meant, under circumstances macabre in a vacuum but not at all compared to what he had experienced a few months prior, Martínez was secure in his spot in the rotation. And he was superb–despite persistent questions about whether he had the frame for big-league durability, Martínez threw 179 2/3 innings with a 3.01 ERA. His strikeouts, somewhat paradoxically, went up. He was somewhat lucky with regards to batter sequencing, but not that lucky.
By 2016, there was zero question as to what Carlos Martínez’s role would be–the better question would be just how highly he slotted in the rotation. And while the 2016 Cardinals took a clear step back from the last half-decade, particularly the previous season’s 100-win team, Martínez was arguably the team’s best player and inarguably its best pitcher. With 195 1/3 innings, Martínez was proving not only to be able to sustain himself but to be something of a workhorse. He wasn’t quite as effective as in 2016, but with a 16-9 record and a 3.04 ERA, he was a worthy ace. In 2017, a season in which he would eventually finish second in Major League Baseball in innings pitched, he earned his first career Opening Day start. While Adam Wainwright remained the team’s veteran leader starting pitcher, Carlos Martínez was the ace.
In 2018, Martínez’s career starter to deviate from what the previous three years had established him to be–a good if not quite elite workhorse of a starter. Despite a rocky Opening Day start, Martínez sported a 1.62 ERA through his first eight starts, but then, he went to the DL for a month. When he returned, over his next nine starts over the next month and a half, Martínez had severe control issues–while he was never exactly Greg Maddux on the mound, a 5.12 per nine rate was far out of his ordinary–and he hobbled to a 5.32 ERA. After an 11-day absence, he pitched extraordinarily well for a July 30 start against the Colorado Rockies, but he left with a shoulder injury which kept him out for three weeks. He fast-tracked his return, but it required him to remain in the bullpen for the remainder of the season. His overall numbers on the season wound up pretty good–a 3.11 ERA and 3.53 FIP in 118 2/3 innings–but he was arguably losing some of his starter sheen.
With injuries persisting, Martínez began the 2019 season on what was now the Injured List. When he finally made it to the big leagues on May 18, he still wasn’t quite 100%, so he was kept in the bullpen, where for the season he primarily served as the team’s closer. And despite his 2019 being defined by a pair of memorable postseason blowups against the Atlanta Braves, allowing three runs in 1 1/3 innings in Game 1 (he got the win, because wins and losses are a stupid statistic) and allowing three in a Game 3 blown save/loss, he was mostly pretty good. But fundamentally, Martínez was a starter by trade, and he wanted to remain one. But his five starts in 2020 were nothing short of a disaster. To be fair, a 26.1% home run to fly ball rate is a mark of obscenely bad luck, but it doesn’t explain away the entirety of a 9.90 ERA.
Carlos Martínez could easily bounce back and be awesome again, in which case his Cardinals legacy is still being written. But if it turns out that Martínez is actually just completely washed now (the truth is probably somewhere in between, but this isn’t impossible), that would fit with his career trajectory of becoming a very typical pitcher. Begin his career as a young reliever with some control issues, check. Establish himself as an innings-capable starter, check. Go through a series of arm injuries which includes going back to the bullpen for a hot minute, check. For all of the divisiveness and all of the window dressing, Carlos Martínez has, in actuality, had a productive but fairly boring career.