The Cardinals' Carlos Martinez strategy

Is the ball, frozen, inches away from his glove a metaphor?

The Cardinals named Joe Kelly the fifth starter to begin the season. Carlos Martinez heads north as a member of the bullpen. His role for the rest of the season is still undecided.

Yesterday, Ben wrote about the Cardinals' decision to name Joe Kelly the fifth starter and send Carlos Martinez to the bullpen. After analyzing why the Cardinals made their decision, it is time to discuss what the Cardinals have planned for Martinez in 2014. Carlos Martinez will start 2014 with the same role he ended with in the 2013 playoffs: eighth inning setup man and bridge to closer Trevor Rosenthal. Whether he remains in that role for the duration of the season depends on multiple contingencies. The Cardinals did not make this decision lightly, nor did they do so without leaving open the possibility of rotation spot at some point in the season.

As recently as a week ago, John Mozeliak downplayed "the path of least resistance" train of thought when it came to putting Martinez in the rotation. While this move does appear somewhat counter to that notion, this appears more a move to avoid future resistance. As mentioned yesterday, this move might be an indication the Cardinals have not closed the door on a return by Jaime Garcia. If Garcia were to prove he could pitch at the major league level, the Cardinals would almost have to return him to the rotation. There has been little indication Garcia could pitch out of the bullpen. The Cardinals cannot trade Garcia without eating a bulk of the $17.5 million still owed to him which also make his outright release unlikely. In a possible future "path of least resistance" move, it is much easier for the Cardinals to move Joe Kelly back to the bullpen if Garcia should return compared to moving a top prospect with an ace ceiling like Martinez.

Absent injury or complete infectiveness of one of the starters, Martinez is not likely to join the rotation until Garcia's absence is prolonged to the point where the Cardinals do not expect him back in the rotation prior to the All-Star Break. Even if Garcia does come back, that is not a death knell for Martinez's starting aspirations this seasons, although it may be for Joe Kelly. Much of the reason given for Martinez returning to the bullpen is the Cardinals' lack of a true set-up man. If Jason Motte comes back and pitches well, Kevin Siegrist asserts himself, or Joe Kelly pitches very well in the bullpen, those scenarios may all lead to Martinez taking a spot in the rotation if one of the five starters goes down.

There is a chance that Martinez stays in the bullpen. In the unlikely event that all five starters, or six if Garcia is included, remain both healthy and effective the entire season, Martinez will remain in the bullpen. While not ideal for Martinez's growth as a starter, the Cardinals would have to be overjoyed and extremely successful if the Cardinals did not require another starter. That scenario is implausible.

Before the season starts, when optimism abounds, thinking about the sixth starter seems a bit superfluous, but the odds of the sixth starter pitching are quite high. The Cardinals have not had five starters make more than 30 starts since 2005. Only once during that time, in 2011, have the Cardinals had even four starters make thirty starts. Over at Fangraphs, Eno Sarris wrote about the odds any team would have multiple pitchers on the disabled list at the same time. For the average team:

*10% likelihood that 4+ starters will be hurt at the same time (.082+.016+.001)
*32% likelihood that 3+ starters will be hurt (0.22 for exactly 3, plus the 4+ injured pitchers above)
*65% likelihood that at least 2 starters will be hurt at any given point in the season (105 games)

There is another scenario, slightly more realistic, that could cause Martinez to stay in the bullpen. If Jason Motte cannot return to his prior form and the bullpen is not strong beyond Rosenthal and Martinez, the Cardinals could continue to follow the "path of least resistance" if a need arises in the rotation. If a starter in Triple-A, like Tim Cooney or Tyler Lyons, is pitching well, the Cardinals could call upon another starter to fill a void in the rotation.

An injury is the most likely scenario for Martinez to enter the rotation, and an injury is likely. As Martinez pitched about 120 innings last season, he will have an innings cap this season regardless of role. Early on, the Cardinals will attempt to bank Martinez's innings while appeasing Mike Matheny's desire for easy late-inning decisions. Martinez's talent is undeniable, and his potential is still as a top of the rotation starter. At some point the Cardinals will need to reach outside the current starting five to fill the rotation. The Cardinals were able to collect on their savings very succesfully last season with Michael Wacha. Hopefully, when it comes time, the Cardinals will be able to do the same with Carlos Martinez.

(Note: Yesterday's minor league games were rained out so there will be no Daily Farm Report today).

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