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Two distinct paths for Carlos Martinez

Carlos Martinez has had one of the best career starts in Cardinals history. It might be a sign of things to come, or it might not.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports

Through his 2016 season, classified in Major League Baseball parlance as his age-24 season (he turned 25 last month, but the cutoff for such a designation is June 30), Carlos Martinez was worth 9.3 Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement. Although slightly hampered by his usage, in that he was not a full-fledged member of the starting rotation until 2015, Martinez has been the third-most productive St. Louis Cardinals pitcher by WAR through age 24 in the Expansion Era (1961-present).

The player worth the most Wins Above Replacement among Cardinals pitchers by this age since 1961 is the best pitcher by WAR to pitch for the Cardinals in the era—Steve Carlton (Bob Gibson was the better Cardinals pitcher and the WAR gap is very close and I’m not personally saying one is actually better than the other—you are correct to send me angry e-mails, but not for this).

Carlton, through his age-24 season of 1969, compiled 47 wins with the Cardinals, with a 2.72 earned-run average (he benefited from playing in one of the most favorable pitching eras of all-time, but his circumstance-adjusted ERA+ of 121 is still a tick better than Carlos Martinez’s 118) and a 2.64 fielding-independent pitching.

Carlton had two more competent, albeit somewhat diminished (ERA+ of 111 and 102) seasons in St. Louis before, following a contract dispute, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for Rick Wise, who pitched well for the Cardinals for two seasons, while Steve Carlton spent most of fifteen seasons in Philadelphia carving his spot with Grove, Spahn, and Plank on the Mount Rushmore of 20th century lefties. He also pitched with four more teams following his Phillies tenure, a fact that I, a millennial with no respect for my elders, just learned.

But whether he did it in St. Louis or Philadelphia is ultimately irrelevant here—the point is that Steve Carlton had a great start to his career, and it was the preamble to an inner-circle Hall of Fame career. The other greatest pitching career start of the Expansion Era for the Cardinals, sandwiched between Carlton’s 12.6 WAR and Martinez’s 9.3 WAR, is the 9.9 WAR amassed by Joe Magrane.

Magrane, a 6’6” lefty, debuted with the Cardinals on the pennant-winning 1987 team, garnering an ERA+ of 118, starting games 1 and 7 of the World Series, and finishing 3rd in National League Rookie of the Year voting. He was even better in 1988—although he had a 5-9 record, he had a league-best 2.18 ERA, good for a 161 ERA+. For perspective on how good a 161 ERA+ is, the only pitcher in MLB history with a better ERA+ in a career with over 1000 innings pitched was Mariano Rivera (Clayton Kershaw and Pedro Martinez, while close, stand at 159 and 154).

In 1989, in his age-24 season, Joe Magrane finished 4th in Cy Young voting. He had an 18-9 record with a 2.91 ERA and 2.95 FIP, and closed out the decade (and this semi-arbitrary age range) with a 130 ERA+, a superior total to both Carlton and Martinez.

Joe Magrane, as you are probably aware, is not in the Hall of Fame. While he was worth 9.9 WAR through age 24, he was worth another 1.5 WAR in his career. Following a decent 1990 (2.4 WAR; 106 ERA+ in 203 13 innings pitched), he missed the entire 1991 season and most of the 1992 season with an elbow injury. In 1993, following 116 ineffective innings with the Cardinals, Magrane was released and signed with the California Angels.

Magrane was a journeyman for the rest of his career. In 175 23 post-Cardinals innings, he had a 6.25 ERA, with 97 walks and only 78 strikeouts. He pitched his final MLB game in 1996 with the Chicago White Sox, at the age of 31.

It isn’t Magrane’s fault that his career is mostly lost to history—pitchers get hurt. Baseball is filled with cases like Magrane’s—guys who came up and were productive, but whose inability to survive the physically unnatural task of pitching a baseball ended their careers prematurely. This is what leads to cases like that of Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark Fidrych, who finished 2nd in Cy Young voting in his age-21 rookie season and only pitched in 27 more games over the next four seasons before being forced into MLB retirement at 26.

Earlier this month, rumors began to circulate that the Cardinals were interested in extending Carlos Martinez’s contract with the team. This wasn’t a huge surprise—wanting to keep good pitchers isn’t exactly an unorthodox strategy for baseball teams—but for those of us who have developed a fondness for Martinez during his relatively brief time with the Cardinals, the prospect of his tenure extending beyond his obligatory years of club control was rather exciting.

But, as is the case with any potential extension, particularly one involving a pitcher, the Cardinals would be incurring some risk that Carlos Martinez will not be able to survive. This is not an indictment of Martinez, who has stayed relatively healthy throughout his professional baseball career, specifically, but rather a reflection on the general volatility of his position.

While it is tempting to see Carlos Martinez as a chance to avenge what was a missed opportunity with Steve Carlton, a case of letting a player’s demand for $60,000 get in the way of experiencing a superlative career first-hand, it would be disingenuous to assume that Carlos Martinez is Steve Carlton. Carlos Martinez could also be Joe Magrane.

Carlos Martinez is probably neither. Carlton and Magrane are two extreme examples, but they show how wide the range of possible outcomes is. Inevitably, if Martinez is extended, he will be paid at below his market value, a reflection of the risk involved with investing in a player, particularly a pitcher, beyond what is absolutely necessary.

Personally, I will likely be ecstatic about such an extension—I think he’s a terrific and exciting pitcher who may continue to improve upon his already high level of performance. But it is important for the Cardinals to act responsibly with any pitcher, and that includes Carlos Martinez. And fans would be wise to keep their expectations at a moderate level, as well.