Projecting Carlos Martinez's Ceiling as an MLB Starting Pitcher

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Projecting Carlos Martinez's Ceiling as an MLB Starting Pitcher
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Carlos Martinez posted a 3.55 ERA over 12 appearances during the postseason.

With the enormous success of St. Louis Cardinals' rookies Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal this past season, it's somewhat understandable that Carlos Martinez gets lost in the mix.

After struggling to carve out a role following his debut on May 3, Martinez was used sparingly out the bullpen and bounced between the minor and major leagues as the organization seemingly pondered how to best utilize the 22-year-old.

By the end of the regular season, though, the flame-throwing right-hander emerged as manager Mike Matheny's preferred option in the late innings and ultimately served as the team's setup man throughout the postseason.

Martinez appeared in 12 games between the team's three playoff series, registering a 3.55 ERA and .167 opponents' batting average with with three walks and 11 strikeouts in 12.2 innings.

However, as the Cardinals begin to address their 2014 roster, they've already made it clear that Martinez won't be working out of the bullpen.

According to Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com, Martinez will enter spring training next season in the mix for a spot in the starting rotation.

While a strong case can be made that Martinez is more valuable to the team as a reliever given his performance in the role this past season, the truth of the matter is that he actually has a considerably higher ceiling as a starter.

 

Path of Development

Since entering the Cardinals' system in 2010, Martinez has pitched in 68 minor-league games, and he was a starter in all but one of them. During that span, the right-hander posted a 2.69 ERA with 340 strikeouts and a 2.88 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 327.2 innings.

But with other promising young arms like Wacha and Miller ahead of him on the depth chart for the big-league rotation, the organization ultimately decided that using Martinez out of the bullpen represented his best chance of making an immediate impact during the 2013 season.

That said, it's not as though the team abandoned all hope of him being featured in a starting role.

The Cardinals sent Martinez back to Triple-A Memphis at the end of July so as to stretch him out in anticipation of a return to the majors as a starter. And sure enough, the 22-year-old was recalled to make the first start of his career on Aug. 8 at home against the Dodgers.

However, the rookie's inaugural start didn't go as planned, as he allowed four earned runs on seven hits and three walks and was forced from the game after only 4.2 innings with a blister on his pitching hand.

After that, Martinez spent the rest of the season in the bullpen and opened eyes with his electric arm and filthy arsenal of pitches.


The Arsenal: Better and Deeper Than You Expect

Though his stuff played up while working in short bursts during the late innings, it was actually a fair representation of what Martinez has to offer as a starting pitcher.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

Thanks to arm speed that has drawn comparisons to Pedro Martinez and already ranks among the best in the game, the right-hander featured an explosive four-seamer that averaged 98 mph this season (per Brooks Baseball), as well as a heavy 96 mph sinker that allowed him to consistently work down in the strike zone.

Meanwhile, Martinez's slider served as his preferred secondary offering. In addition to being thrown with power at 82.5 mph, the pitch averaged -2.16 inches of vertical movement and proved to be a legitimate bat-misser against the game's top hitters.

During his rise through the minor leagues, Martinez's mid- to upper-80s changeup was regarded as his best weapon, thanks in part to his ability to throw the pitch with nearly identical arm speed to that of his heater. However, he essentially eliminated the pitch from his arsenal upon shifting to the bullpen in the major leagues and ultimately threw it only 4.11 percent of the time.

But as Martinez resumes his development as a starter, expect his use of the pitch to increase significantly moving forward. More specifically, it will be vital toward his success against left-handed hitters, who collectively batted .326 against the right-hander this past season.

While he hasn't had the opportunity to showcase his full repertoire at the major-league level, Martinez's obscene arm strength and underrated feel for pitching gives him the potential to be a dynamic starting pitcher. And though the 22-year-old will endure inevitable growing pains and be forced to make adjustments while re-acclimating himself with the role, the quality of his pure stuff should at least offer some breathing room.

 

The Concerns: Plane and Durability

As a 6'0" right-hander, concern about Martinez's combination of plus-plus fastball velocity and a lack of downhill plane toward the plate has followed him throughout his career. However, the right-hander's career numbers between the minor and major leagues tell a different story.

In 327.2 minor-league frames over four seasons, Martinez has allowed only 14 home runs, which translates to a stellar 0.4 HR/9 rate (home runs per nine innings). Similarly, he allowed only one long ball in 28.1 regular-season innings this past season.

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Martinez's groundball rates have also steadily improved as he's moved up the minor-league ladder and have sat comfortably above 50 percent over the last two seasons. More importantly, his ability to induce groundballs translated favorably in the major leagues this year at 52.3 percent, per FanGraphs.

Meanwhile, his outfield fly-ball rate has held steady during that time, which is especially impressive considering that he spent most of the 2013 season pitching in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.

In my opinion, the 22-year-old's workload presents a more realistic concern moving forward, as he's already endured an arm injury and eclipsed 100 innings in a season only once in the last four years.

However, Martinez's workload should be manageable next season given the depth of the Cardinals' starting rotation, meaning that the team could realistically adhere to whatever innings limit they choose to impose.

 

The Ceiling

While Martinez's long-term role will be questioned until he proves capable of handling the workload of a full-time starter, the right-hander's upside as a starting pitcher is undeniably huge.

Should the Cardinals use Carlos Martinez as a starter or reliever in 2014?

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With elite arm strength and an arsenal comprised of three or four plus-or-better pitches, Martinez has the ceiling of a No. 2 starter and could be a force at the front of a rotation. Even if that doesn't work out, the 22-year-old still has a bright future as a lights-out closer.

But given the Cardinals' track record of promoting their top pitching prospects to the big-league bullpen towards the end of the regular season only to deploy them in the rotation the following year, the organization deserves the benefit of the doubt in their decision to audition Martinez for a spot in the 2014 rotation.

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