When spring training started it seemed that the St. Louis Cardinals expected young right-handed pitcher Carlos Martinez to resume the role he played in the 2013 playoffs: Eighth inning set-up man.
But after starting pitcher Jaime Garcia stumbled in his rehab from shoulder surgery, the door was cracked open for Martinez to audition for the open slot in the rotation. And he's done nothing up to this point to give the Redbirds a reason to believe he doesn't deserve the job.
Martinez pitched 5 1/3 innings Wednesday against the Minnesota Twins and allowed only one run on three hits and a walk. True, it was a spring training traveling squad he faced. But let's not discount the fact that Martinez pitched with poise and efficiency, hurling strikes and maximizing his opportunity in what eventually was a 3-1 win by the Redbirds.
It seems to me that the Cardinals are serious about giving Martinez a shot to make the rotation. Based on his lack of experience, I believe the Birds would be wise to put Martinez in situations similar to what he could expect to face when the games began to count. Maybe he wouldn't pitch the eighth if they still eyed him as the set-up man. But he would come in later in games when there were men on base in high leverage situations to acclimate himself to the pressure cooker world of a reliever.
I also believe the Redbirds wouldn't give Martinez this opportunity if they thought it was going to be a temporary situation. Why build him up and then pull the rug out from under him?
Unfortunately, the news about Garcia doesn't leave much room for optimism. The reports about the condition of his shoulder yesterday -- tied ominously to the news that the Cardinals have fired their orthopedic surgeon after a long relationship -- seem to indicate that Garcia is expected to be a diminished pitcher for the rest of his career. So St. Louis knows it probably needs a starter for the long haul. While I am a big fan of Joe Kelly, I believe the Cardinals see Garcia as a guy with a higher upside.
On the bright side, that empty eighth inning job might have a logical candidate in the wings. Former closer Jason Motte seems to be ahead of schedule on his recovery from Tommy John surgery. So, it is likely that he could be ready to fill the eighth inning hole in the next month or two. The Birds will just have to find a way to get by in the meantime.
My biggest worry about Martinez has never been his "stuff." It's his poise and composure. In the past, he's pitched great one inning and then had a bump in the road in the second that causes him to go wildly off course. He has to know all eyes are on him right now. Yet he hasn't had a stumble in his last three starts. And that's after he was publicly humiliated by his internet scandal at the start of spring training.
He didn't go into a shell or shrink from the spotlight. It's as if the bad stuff never happened at this point.
Sometimes things have a mysterious way of working out. But maybe being embarrassed in public matured Martinez and gave him the wake-up call he needed. As of the 3/4 mark of Grapefruit League play, he's one of the top three pitchers the Cardinals have. I don't see how he can miss making the rotation without a significant setback.