The St. Louis Cardinals have a reputation for getting the most out of their players, especially rookies.
Last year the team’s World Series roster was comprised of 18 homegrown players (those drafted or signed by the organization), including six rookie pitchers who combined to post a 2.74 ERA with 451 strikeouts in 443.1 innings during the regular season (6.5 fWAR). Of those 18 players, five were holdovers from the Cardinals’ 2011 World Series-winning team.
Even after graduating impact prospects such as Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Michael Wacha to the major leagues, the organization is expected to receive significant contributions from more young players this season, namely Carlos Martinez and Kolten Wong.
Both Martinez and Wong received a taste of the major leagues in late 2013, but neither player truly capitalized on his playing time and at times appeared overexposed in their respective roles. However, both players are now considered locks for the Opening Day roster after strong performances in spring training, which means we’ll soon find out what they’re capable of, individually and collectively, over a full season in the major leagues.
After trading third baseman David Freese during the offseason and shifting Matt Carpenter to the hot corner, rookie Kolten Wong entered spring training as the favorite to become the team’s Opening Day second baseman.
However, the organization couldn’t afford to take any chances after Wong batted .153/.194/.169 in 62 plate appearances last year in the major leagues, and so it signed veteran infielder Mark Ellis as a safety net. Basically, the Cardinals put Wong in a situation where the position would be his to lose.
I think we’d all rather get off to a good start than a bad one. But I think Kolten is going to be one of those guys that just trusts himself and his ability and not get too high or too low. I think there’s a lot to be seen about how he handles it when things don’t go his way. We’re constantly watching that as well with all these guys.
He’s a talented player and we’ll continue to give him some at-bats and some opportunities out there, and he’s going to be just fine. He looks good this spring.
Since then, Wong has been playing like a guy who wants the Opening Day gig, as he’s batting .500 (18-for-36) with five doubles, two home runs and nine RBI in his last 12 games. Overall, the 23-year-old is batting .391/.451/.674 through 17 games.
Wong won’t come close to matching Matt Carpenter’s value last season at second base (7.0 WAR), but the Cardinals still stand to improve by employing him at the keystone and Carpenter at third.
David Freese had a dismal 0.2 WAR last season in 138 games as the Cardinals third baseman, but he was a four-win player the previous year. Carpenter will lose value offensively this season moving to the hot corner and projects for a 4.8 WAR year, per Oliver, and the same model calls for a 2.4 WAR season from Wong.
Therefore, the Cardinals, in theory, should be no worse off with Carpenter and Wong compared to Carpenter and Freese. It also leaves room for both players to overachieve in future seasons—as so many young Cardinal players tend to do—which is very, very possible considering their ages (28 and 23, respectively) and relative lack of professional experience.
The aforementioned projection for Wong suggests he’ll bat .255/.307/.364 with 68 runs, 37 extra-base hits (nine home runs) and 18 stolen bases in 600 plate appearances. However, if he receives most of his at-bats against right-handed pitching (with Ellis getting playing time against lefties), then the triple-slash line should be better than expected, especially in the batting average and on-base percentage departments.
Carlos Martinez struggled to find a role following his big league debut on May 3, as he was used sparingly out of the bullpen and bounced between the minor and major leagues as the organization 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.
The decision to use Martinez as a starter shouldn’t come as a surprise. Since entering the Cardinals system in 2010, the right-hander has pitched in 68 minor league games and started all but one of them. During that span, he posted a 2.69 ERA with 340 strikeouts and a 2.88 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 327.2 innings.
Martinez did everything in his power this spring to win a spot in the starting rotation, as he easily was the most impressive of the team’s starters and arguably one of the best across the league. Making four starts on the spring, the 22-year-old registered a 1.76 ERA with nine strikeouts in 15.1 innings.
However, the Cardinals ultimately elected to go with Joe Kelly as their fifth starter based on his success the previous year and overall experience, which means that Martinez, in spite of his eye-opening performance this spring, will begin the season in the bullpen.
#STLCards have named Joe Kelly their fifth starter. Carlos Martinez will be the eighth inning setup man.— Jenifer Langosch (@LangoschMLB) March 23, 2014
Martinez offered a glimpse of his potential in the role last October, when he registered a 3.55 ERA and .167 opponents' batting average with three walks and 11 strikeouts in 12.2 innings spanning the Cardinals’ three playoff series.
Are the Cardinals better off with Carlos Martinez in the bullpen?
As I highlighted in a previous article, Martinez’s overwhelming success during the postseason stemmed from two adjustments: moving toward the first-base side of the rubber and lowering his arm angle slightly. The moves enabled the right-hander to locate and execute his sinker-slider combination more consistently—a trend that has carried over into the spring.
Though he won’t open the season in the Cardinals rotation, Martinez was stretched out enough this spring that he’ll be able to assume a spot should a member of the staff suffer an injury. And if that occurs, I doubt the organization will mind offering Martinez a legitimate audition as a big league starter.
*All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com.
*All videos courtesy of MLB.com (MLB Advanced Media).