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The Cardinals Should Not Trade Carlos Martinez

Addressing THAT rumor

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St Louis Cardinals v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

It’s silly season in baseball wherein fans and reporters alike dabble in ridiculous trade proposals. This will occur with increasing frequency over the next two weeks. It’s best to ignore these rumors, with the vast majority lacking any substantial truth. However, there was one particular rumor that came up earlier this week from a very reputable source as a potential trade chip for the Cardinals. It feels necessary to get on the record about it. Trading Carlos Martinez is an awful idea.

Ken Rosenthal initially mentioned it in his Monday article at The Athletic. He’s one of the best in the business. It’s hard not to take notice when Rosenthal says this:

...the Cardinals have pieces they can move – one rival executive says they are open to dealing an outfielder such as Tyler O’Neill or Lane Thomas and even closer Carlos Martinez, who is pitching well but earning $11.5 million per season through 2021.

Dealing Martinez obviously doesn’t make sense if they’re buying on the market for a push this season. If they’re selling, Bernie Miklasz nailed the difficulty of doing so earlier this week. They don’t have much to trade that would justify a deal. Marcell Ozuna’s injury will likely prevent a trade. Michael Wacha’s trade value is negative. They might think about dealing Kolten Wong or Jose Martinez, although their trade value is limited. You’re talking about 40-45 FV prospects coming back, which the franchise already has in droves. There are options to sell on the roster, but they’re similarly limited.

That brings me to Martinez. There are multiple reasons why the Cardinals should hold on to Carlos Martinez.

His value is at its nadir.

From 2015 through his May 2nd start in 2018, Martinez was one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. His 10.7 fWAR was 20th over that time, and his FIP and xFIP were 25th. At that point, he was owed approximately $43M across nearly four seasons- a tremendous bargain. Then the pesky injuries started.

The rest of his 2018 season saw multiple IL stints before he was finally placed in the closer role. In spring training this year, he and the team both raised red flags about his role as a starter. His 2019 debut was delayed before he finally arrived in the bullpen yet again. Carlos Martinez, reliever, is a valuable asset, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to his value as a starter.

Potential trade partners haven’t seen him start in 14 months. They’ve also seen him land on the IL several times since last May. If you want fair value in exchange for a pitcher who was recently one of the 25 best starters in the game, signed to a very reasonable contract, this is the worst possible time to trade him.

Baseball Trade Values currently lists his median surplus value at $16.3M. That’s worth a prospect like Elehuris Montero and maybe some quad-A depth. Martinez’s future value to the Cardinals is far greater than that.

His contract is manageable.

Having Carlos Martinez in the rotation for 2020 is what the team would prefer, it’s what Martinez would prefer, and it’s what the majority of fans would prefer. It’s where he offers the greatest value. Even if he rejoins the rotation and regresses to league average, it’s a bargain at $11.5M. Here’s how free agents with league average or slightly better projections did on the open market this past cycle: Charlie Morton (2.7 ZIPS fWAR, $15M AAV), Lance Lynn (1.7, $10M AAV), Dallas Keuchel (2.7, 1 year, $13M), Hyun-Jin Ryu (1.6, accepted qualifying offer of $17.9M), and J.A. Happ (2.9, $17M AAV).

Suppose he returns to the bullpen next year for any reason. It just so happens that the team will need someone to cover for Jordan Hicks for the majority of 2020. I’m not advocating for Carlos Martinez to fill that role, but it’s certainly possible that the same circumstances that led to him filling that role this year could reoccur next year. He would be considered a premium reliever. Here is the last free agent cycle for premium relievers: Andrew Miller ($12.5M AAV guaranteed), Adam Ottavino ($9M AAV), Zack Britton ($13M AAV), Jeurys Familia ($10M AAV), David Robertson ($11.5M AAV), and Craig Kimbrel ($14.6M AAV).

If he starts in 2020, his salary is a bargain. If he ends up back in the bullpen, it’s still in line with market values.

The 2020 Cardinals need starting pitchers with front end potential.

The Cardinals currently have Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson, Adam Wainwright, and Daniel Ponce de Leon in the rotation. Michael Wacha is still around. Austin Gomber, Alex Reyes, Genesis Cabrera, and Jake Woodford offer 2020 depth. Ryan Helsley might be an option, though the franchise seems hell-bent on getting his value out of the bullpen.

By 2020, Wacha will be gone. Wainwright is a retirement candidate. There’s some stability in Mikolas, Flaherty, and Hudson. Beyond that trio, it’s question mark after question mark. Any of the other alternatives might be serviceable, but you wouldn’t dare assume it. Banking on Cardinals Devil Magic is not a strategy.

Barring major rebounds over the next two months, even the best of those options will enter 2020 with mild projections. Only Flaherty and Mikolas offer the kind of top-end potential that Carlos Martinez, starting pitcher, can supply.

If the Cardinals want to address the rotation for 2020, they won’t find a pitcher like Carlos Martinez in free agency. They certainly won’t find a pitcher like that for less than 2 years and the $23.5M guarantee due to Martinez, at least not without taking a gamble.

To recap:

  • Trading Martinez now would be selling at the lowest possible point, a recurring theme that must end (see: Pham, Tommy; Diaz, Aledmys; Adams, Matt; Piscotty, Stephen; Leake, Mike; et al.)
  • You need Martinez to compete either in 2019 or 2020 or both. If the desire is to rebuild for 2020 and beyond, his present trade value does not significantly help you do that.
  • His contract is a bargain if he’s a starter, and is acceptable if he must be a reliever.
  • His potential for front of the rotation performance is needed in 2020.

It’s hard to look at this situation and understand how it makes sense on any level. Hopefully the rumor can be dispatched to the dumpster with other silly season rumors.