Strauss: Martinez is thriving with AAA Redbirds

2013-06-26T11:10:00Z 2013-08-23T07:58:51Z Strauss: Martinez is thriving with AAA RedbirdsJoe Strauss • jstrauss@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

MEMPHIS, Tenn. • To witness Carlos Martinez’ Sunday performance against the Iowa Cubs at Memphis’ AutoZone Park is to want to see more, want to see it soon and, yes, want to see it in a major league stadium.

This is not empty hope from a fantasy league geek’s wish list. This is a firm desire to see whether Martinez’ dynamic fastball-curve-change mix translates for five, six or more innings for a National League power. The Cardinals already have seen what Martinez can do after making his major-league debut within a chaotic bullpen. As an emergency promotion, the 21-year-old helped establish order via seven appearances that covered eight innings.

Sunday found Martinez in his element. In his sixth Pacific Coast League start the baby-faced righthander lasted 7 2/3 innings, the longest outing by a Memphis hurler this season. It easily could have lasted longer if not for the pitch-count issues created by his dominance.

Martinez struck out eight and walked no one. Heck, he faced only two three-ball counts, allowed three hits and permitted just two runners to reach scoring position before exiting a 6-0 game. He used the ball as a yo-yo for his entertainment.

Caught up within the swirl of Wachamania this spring it is easy to forget Martinez ranked as one of the industry’s top pitching prospects before administrative wrangling delayed his entry to the country this spring. He has allowed one home run and struck out 47 in 49 1/3 innings at three levels. He is special.

Memphis manager Pop Warner already has shuttled rookies Michael Wacha, Tyler Lyons, Seth Maness, Kevin Siegrist, John Gast, Keith Butler and Michael Blazek to St. Louis. Martinez’ promotion from Springfield appeared a rush job to address a hemorrhaging bullpen. He took some damage – four earned runs and a .300 opponents’ average – but was mostly stand-up before the parent club optioned him to Triple-A to resume starting.

Martinez doesn’t merely work a game; he gives a performance. Perhaps he has a tendency to wander within an inning. Maybe he gets bored throwing his fastball. Yes, his focus will tighten in time. But Martinez is unafraid to give off the mannerisms of a young arm who loves nothing more than to pitch.

What’s keeping Martinez from the major leagues? Warner answers succinctly: “Opportunity.”

Closing time found Martinez in Sunday’s eighth inning when Cubs pinch-hitter Donnie Murphy grounded a bases-empty two-out single on the righthander’s 102nd pitch.

Martinez handed the ball to Warner and began the long, slow walk to the third-base dugout. He walked with shoulders slumped and looking down as if not allowed to eat a meal he had prepared for more than two hours.

Several steps from the third-base line Martinez heard the applause, glanced up to see a home crowd standing and immediately became energized. “Little Pedro” drew back his shoulders, raised his glove, shook it several times, then kissed it before jumping into foul territory. Perhaps it wasn’t the big-league thing to do. Maybe the overt display wasn’t big league cool. Even better, it was fun. (Two starts previous, Martinez let go of his bat after producing a harmless ground ball. The bat helicoptered some 15 feet in the air, landing halfway to the mound.)

The young Dominican’s body type resembles a young Pedro Martinez, another talent who coupled effectiveness with an obvious enjoyment of his craft. When Carlos gave a sneak preview to media during early camp in 2011, his delivery and arm action mimicked the three-time Cy Young Award winner. He has since made tweaks. Undeniably gifted, he is also open to improvement.

“I’m working every day on my delivery. I’m going to continue to do that. I want to make it back. I look forward to the call,” he says.

Martinez enjoys social media. If his body language demonstrates excitement at success it can also give away frustration. But a combined 1.96 minor-league ERA has made room for little frustration. “He loves being a baseball player,” says farm director John Vuch.

And what’s not to love when you can harness a two- and four-seam fastball, a plus change-up and at least a major-league average curve? Martinez’ change-up exhibits the same spin as his fastball without sink. In other words, it resembles a visual carbon until too late. Martinez often refers to his curve as a slider, a pitch he feels ranks ahead of the precocious change-up.

“He could easily fall into the trap of falling in love with his fastball because it’s overpowering and he can locate it. But he doesn’t. He gets it,” says Warner, aware of times when the organization has urged its top pitching prospect to throw more heat.

Pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd rates Martinez’ off-speed assortment as “advanced,” a description that eluded the Cardinals’ current Rookie of the Year candidate, Shelby Miller, for much of his minor-league experience.

Martinez counted 12 change-ups in Sunday’s start. He topped out at 98 miles per hour. He mixed 71 strikes among 102 pitches. He put the game on his back and moved it.

“I didn’t want to throw hard this time,” Martinez said. “I just wanted to spot my pitches. I feel good about them.”

Without spelling out their pitching plan for the parent club, the Cardinals are implying much with a modified six-man rotation at Memphis.

Wacha, for example, next starts July 2 after being optioned last week. From there he’ll typically work no more frequently every sixth day as the organization lightens stress in his first full professional season.

Martinez, in his fourth professional season, will sometimes work every fifth day. The arrangement suggests he would receive the first summons should additional need develop within the Cardinals’ rotation.

“It would feel good to start a game in the big leagues,” he says. “I hope to get back there, whether it’s as a starter or reliever.”

Martinez ended March in his native country, not Jupiter. He has pinballed from abbreviated starts in a Double-A rotation to performing triage within a major-league bullpen to now throwing 100 pitches in a Triple-A start. It is not yet July and Martinez has experienced much within a season less than half done. The possibilities tease.

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