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Free Agent Profile: Nick Martinez

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In a deep pitching market, the Cardinals may once again dip into Asia for pitching help

United States v Japan - Baseball Gold Medal Game - Olympics: Day 15 Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

With a labor stoppage looming in early December, there was an assumption that baseball’s free agent market would proceed slowly. While that’s still likely true for the bigger names on the market, there’s been plenty of activity thus far with lower and mid-range talent. As the annual General Manager meetings wraps up, we’ve already seen the Dodgers sign Andrew Heaney, the Cubs pluck Wade Miley off of waivers from the Reds, the Yankees sign Joely Rodriguez, the Reds trade Tucker Barnhart, and the Cardinals re-sign T.J. McFarland. That’s in addition to the usual cacophany of minor league free agent signings and roster machinations to prune team rosters in hopes of making room for future free agents. With the assumed stoppage, some teams are accelerating their processes like squirrels hoarding nuts for the winter. Derrick Goold cited an agent this week claiming the Cardinals were one such team, specifically in the pitching market. In a separate piece, Goold, who has killed it with his coverage this week, mentioned a surprising name that I want to cover today- Nick Martinez.

Martinez is such a unique name because the starting pitching market that we already know of is full of alternatives with varying skill sets, prices, and experience levels. If you want someone with an ace pedigree, there’s Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw (presuming Kershaw doesn’t return to the Dodgers). Robbie Ray offers a high talent level, a fresh breakout, and an inconsistent history. Marcus Stroman- my pesonal choice- is Ray’s antithesis as an innings-eating groundball machine. Eduardo Rodriguez offers reliability and a gamble on peripherals, Kevin Gausman is an innings eater with a fresh breakout like Ray. Noah Syndergaard, Justin Verlander, and Carlos Rodon represent high risk and high reward gambles on health. There are several other less exciting choices beyond that group. There’s something for any team. Then out of nowhere, Goold mentioned Nick Martinez. If you’re like me, your initial reaction was “Who the hell is Nick Martinez?” Or if you’d rather an obligatory Lebowski reference and can deal with an f-bomb, it was a lot like this.

Texas Rangers v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Nick Martinez, Texas Ranger

Martinez was an 18th round selection by the Rangers in 2011. His first full season in 2012 was bumpy with a 4.83 ERA in low-A, though his 3.63 FIP was more respectable. Things came together for him in 2013, where a 2.87 ERA/3.27 FIP in high-A earned him a 32 inning debut in AA. He earned a spot in the MLB rotation in spring 2014. Across 140 innings in his MLB debut, he had a 4.55 ERA/4.94 FIP at age 23, along with a 9.2 inning side trip back to AA.

He came out dealing in 2015 with an incredible 0.45 ERA (3.22 FIP) through April 23rd. With a low strikeout rate, he was doing well by suppressing walks and dingers. He held on to that success through late June, but the rest of his season was a disaster- a 6.42 ERA/6.33 FIP after June 21. On the season, he finished with a 3.96 ERA but a 4.98 FIP. All along other than his early 2015 glory, his K rates were abysmal, some of the worst in baseball, and he wasn’t particularly great at suppressing walks and homeruns. His ability to stay healthy and absorb beatings in the Rangers’ bandbox made him A Guy™ but a highly disposable one.

He split the 2016 season between AAA and the Rangers. He walked more MLB hitters than he struck out, and his homerun rate mushroomed in 38.2 innings. It was a dreadful season. He found himself back in the rotation for 111 innings in 2017, this time posting his best K and BB rates, but they were torpedoed by a whopping 2.1 HR/9. His 5.48 FIP from 2014 to 2017 was the second worst among MLB starters.

Despite his minor league success, he wasn’t highly regarded as a prospect. His best prospect ranking with Baseball America was as the Rangers’ 12th best prospect entering 2014. He had been #27 in the organization before 2013, and scouting reports at the time note his fastball velocity in the 89-94 mph range, a “solid-average curveball” with some deception, and a change-up that was a work in progress. Jason Parks, then of Baseball Prospectus and now Director of Pro Scouting for the Diamondbacks, lauded Martinez’s athleticism and makeup. However, projection systems didn’t see much.

Act II: Japan

The Rangers released Martinez after 2017. Martinez opted to continue his career in Japan, signing with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. His first pass in Japan in 2018 was mostly the same as his MLB performance, albeit against different competition. His K% was 13.8, though his BB% improved from his MLB time to 5.8%. He also slashed his HR/9 to 0.9. His follow-up season in 2019 was mostly lost to injury, though Baseball Reference notes that he threw four innings.

Recovered for 2020, his K rate spiked to 20.4%, but it came with a much higher walk rate (10.8%). Overall, he had an uninspiring 4.23 ERA in 83 innings. In fairness, that was the pandemic season. Then in 2021, now with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, everything clicked. He was dominant- a 1.62 ERA, a 25% K rate paired with a 6.9% BB rate, and a miniscule 0.38 HR/9 in 149 innings. His swinging strike rate was up to 13.8%. For comparison’s sake, that would have ranked 8th in MLB this season. And that’s precisely why he’s on the Cardinals’ radar, as well as other teams.

Sung Min Kim- a critical baseball follow on Twitter- had this to say about Martinez’s repertoire:

Kim goes on to point out that Martinez has shown an increased effectiveness with his changeup to pair with his extra velocity. In short, along with the enhanced peripherals, he earned his dominant season.

The Hawks want to keep him, of course, which may complicate matters, but Martinez is apparently available. What stands out is how well he seems to fit with the Cardinals. For starters, the Cardinals have been aggressive and successful in the Asian markets- Seunghwan Oh, Kwang-Hyun Kim, and Miles Mikolas. A lot of Martinez’s story mimics Mikolas, up to and including an unsuccessful stint in MLB with the Rangers before remaking himself in Japan. Additionally, the “athletic” tag on Martinez matches one of the Cardinals’ preferred tropes from their pitchers. Coming from Japan, a bidding war for Martinez isn’t likely to approach the bidding war for the names at the front of this article. The Cardinals have also cited a desire for a pitcher who can find an extra gear in front of their top-notch defense and their run-suppressing ballpark. Martinez would seem to be that guy, or one of them.

I’m still Team Stroman, now and forever, but Nick Martinez makes for a reasonable alternate plan.