With Opening Day just over a week away, this is the point in spring training where we start to figure out what the Opening Day roster is going to look like and what roles players are expected to have. While the competition for the fifth starter spot on the Cardinals has certainly been more interesting and competitive than most spring training competitions, we are starting to get indications of which pitcher the team is leaning towards choosing. While it originally appeared that the fifth starter competition was between Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales, Jaime Garcia has (unexpectedly?) shown up to spring training seemingly healthy and ready to join the rotation.
In a Post-Dispatch article this week, Derrick Goold summed up Garcia's situation.
"(Mike) Matheny acknowledged that the team started spring training with the idea that Garcia could open the regular season on the disabled list, remaining in extended spring to continue to prove his health. Garcia's performance through three starts and the sim game Tuesday has dialed up that plan and now has the team considering whether Garcia could open the season as part of the rotation, making a start as early as the second series of the regular season or soon thereafter."
If the Cardinals do indeed start the season with Garcia as the fifth starter, then we have to wonder what will happen to Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzales. With Gonzales, the decision seems pretty straightforward. He was never seen as the favorite to be the fifth starter, and the expectation was that barring a major injury in the rotation, he would start the season either in the bullpen as the second lefty behind Randy Choate or in the Triple-A rotation.
Martinez's situation is less clear. He came into spring as the clear frontrunner for the fifth starter spot, and there has been less discussion about where Martinez would end up if he wasn't the fifth starter. With Martinez's experience in the bullpen, it appears that there is a good chance that he ends up there to start the season. It's not clear, though, what sort of role he would have if he were to end up in the bullpen.
Last season, Martinez appeared in a wide variety of situations, making 57 appearances, including seven starts. (He also made two starts at Triple-A.) He started the season as one of the team's primary setup men, but when Pat Neshek emerged to have an All-Star year and Seth Maness recovered from a slow start to the season, Martinez saw fewer high-leverage appearances.
This chart illustrates the bullpen usage of the Cardinals' four primary right-handed relievers last season using leverage index, which measures the situational importance of a pitcher's appearances. As you can see, Martinez's leverage index was extremely high for the first two months of the season, even higher than that of closer Trevor Rosenthal for a period of time. At the beginning of the year, it was clear that Martinez was a 7th/8th inning pitcher who would get important outs. In particular, he was often called upon to come in with runners on base in close games, which may explain why his leverage index was higher than that of Rosenthal. Nevertheless, Martinez was "dialed back" from high-leverage situations at the end of May, when his ERA had ballooned to 4.82 (albeit in a very small sample size of 28 innings).
Martinez then appeared in four low-leverage games in which the team was already losing, before being transitioned to the starting rotation in mid-June. After making his final major league start on July 30th, Martinez was sent back to Triple-A, where he made two more starts, before being brought back to the major-league bullpen on August 17th. At this point, though, he was below Rosenthal, Neshek, and Maness on the list of right-handed relievers Mike Matheny trusted in high pressure situations.
So what role can we expect Martinez to have in 2015 if he is in the bullpen? As we have seen, Mike Matheny is a huge proponent of bullpen roles (remember when he refused to use his closer in a tie game with the season on the line against the Giants?), so it would make sense that Martinez would have some sort of defined role if he were to make the major league bullpen. For now the Cardinals still have Rosenthal and Maness back to fill the same roles as last season, and they brought in Jordan Walden to take over for Pat Neshek as the primary setup man. This puts Martinez at 4th on the right-handed relief depth chart, the same place he was at the end of last season.
The Cardinals also signed right-handed reliever Matt Belisle in the offseason, and he figures to be yet another right-handed pitcher who can bridge the gap between the starter and Walden/Rosenthal in the 8th and 9th innings. While it is feasible that Martinez could emerge as the primary right-handed 7th inning reliever, the Cardinals may opt to give that role to Maness and/or Belisle, who figure to remain in the major league bullpen for the entire year.
It's possible that Martinez could fill the role of the long reliever, which Carlos Villanueva initially seemed poised to fill when he was signed. In this scenario, Martinez would pitch multiple innings when a starter failed to get deep into the game or when the rest of the bullpen needed a night off. On the plus side, this would keep Martinez stretched out and able to fill in as a starter should a need arise in the rotation. However, this role may not be good for Martinez's development, as he wouldn't get consistent work and could go for long stretches without pitching in games. As Craig pointed out in one of his Fangraphs posts last week, long relievers are becoming increasingly rare, so we might not even see a Cardinals reliever used in this fasion.
One option that is completely unrealistic but would be fun to see would be for Martinez to be on a piggyback schedule with one of the Cardinals' starters. In this scenario, the starter would be pulled after five or six innings, and Martinez would come in and finish the game. This would help limit the innings of the starter, and it would help keep Martinez stretched out and on a starter's schedule, while also limiting his own innings. This would be especially helpful for Martinez if he were needed to step into the rotation at some point during the year.
Michael Wacha would be a good candidate for such an arrangement, as the team plans on monitoring his innings due to last year's concerning shoulder injury. Before going on the DL last year, Wacha averaged six innings per start. The Cardinals could limit him to five innings per start early in the year, and Martinez could then provide the other four innings. Ideally, this would result in an off day for the rest of the bullpen, and it would prevent Matheny from overusing his late inning relievers. Realistically, though, it would probably be extremely tempting for Matheny to bring in a late inning reliever at the first sign of trouble in a close game. In addition, it would be hard not to pinch hit for Martinez late in the game if the team was losing by a run or two.
Given the lack of obvious roles for Martinez in the bullpen, it's quite possible that he could be sent to Triple-A to stay conditioned as a starter, ready to be called up if someone gets injured. This option is especially appealing if the team chooses to keep Marco Gonzales as one of the two lefties in the bullpen. Unfortunately, any role, other than fifth starter, is probably not ideal for Carlos Martinez at this point in his career. If Jaime Garcia is truly healthy, though, delaying Martinez's entry into the starting rotation may be the best move for the team's overall success in 2015.