Currently, it appears that Carlos Martinez will be the fifth starter for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2021. There are plenty of pitchers competing for the job, but it seems likely that the Cardinals will see if Carlos Martinez can have a bounce back year in 2021. This could change depending on what happens in Spring Training, but Martinez has the highest upside of any pitcher competing for the final spot in the rotation, and with his history, it is smart that the Cardinals are giving Martinez another chance in the rotation.
In order to prepare for this, the 29-year-old pitched in the Dominican Republic in the winter, which allowed him to stretch out his arm, and try to regain some of his velocity. The results were promising. The right-hander topped out at 96 mph, while sitting consistently in the low 90s. He also dominated in most of his starts while occasionally have some control issues.
To begin with, it is good that he can still hit 96 mph. In 2017, Martinez’s last full season as a starter, he averaged 96.3 mph on his fastball. He then stayed in the 95-96 mph range when he was in the bullpen and making some starts in 2018 and 2019; but then in 2020, his velocity dropped to 93.3 mph. Such a loss of velocity is not a great sign, which is why it was encouraging that Martinez hit 96 mph this winter.
Additionally, even though his fastball typically sat around 92-93 mph in the Dominican, it is not too concerning. It was only a few relatively unimportant winter league games that Martinez played in; thus, he was not going to throw his arm out. With a full spring, it is possible that he can get his velocity back up to around 94-95 mph, even if it is unlikely that he average 96 again.
When this regained velocity is combined with the strong movement on his pitches, it appears that Martinez still has plenty of arm talent. However, the projections are not expecting a strong season from him.
ZIPS has him finishing with a 4.54 FIP and 1.4 WAR in 21 starts, while Steamer has him finishing with a 4.92 FIP and 1.1 WAR in 24 starts. Neither of these projections are promising, and they both expect him to decrease his strikeout rate from previous years while also allowing a career high home run rate.
Both of these scenarios are possible, as there have been plenty of questions surrounding Martinez in recent years. However, it seems that these projections are a bit low, especially if Martinez can stay healthy in 2021 (which is not guaranteed).
The right-hander was a solid starter for the Cardinals for nearly four years before he moved to the bullpen and still performed well. It is concerning that his velocity dropped in 2020 and that he did not pitch well. However, he threw just 20 innings. Even with all the question marks around him, these 20 innings should not be valued overwhelmingly more than his past couple of successful seasons.
Especially with his desire to pitch in the winter in order to strengthen him arm, Martinez appears to be serious about returning to the rotation. If he can regain some of his lost velocity (which seems likely), and he still has movement on his pitches (which he does), then he can still be a successful pitcher.
Martinez might occasionally have some control issues flare up, and it might take him some time to readjust to being a starter. However, at least before Spring Training, he seems like the Cardinals best option to fill out the rotation, and with his strong history of performance, he should at least be given a chance.
He has had some issues with his arm in the past, which is why he was sent to the bullpen. However, 2020 was his first bad year in his career, and it seems that the projections have valued it too much.
Before 2020, Martinez had allowed more than one homer run per nine innings just once in his career, so being projected for 1.26 HR/9 (ZIPS) and 1.31 HR/9 (Steamer) seems a bit high. Additionally, Steamer is projecting him for a career low strikeout rate, while ZIPS’ projection would be the second lowest of his career. This also seems unlikely. Due to the issues with his arm in past years and his rough 2020 season, it is unlikely that Martinez will return to the pitcher that he was in 2015-2017. However, he can still be effective, and he can still miss bats.
The Cardinals should not put too much confidence in Martinez until he earns it. However, the projections for his season seem too low, and he could be a bounce back candidate that surprises people with his effectiveness.