As the Cardinals attempt to nail down the right trade-deadline approach, there is one player who seems to represent a very vivid line between now and later.
If the Cardinals trade righthander Carlos Martinez before the July 31 deadline, they will have a hard time selling anything but a seller’s stance.
Trading Tsunami might not be a white-flag move. It wouldn’t be a win-now move, either. Fans who expect the Cardinals to follow through on their stated goal of winning the division deserve to see trade-deadline actions that don’t require a complicated explanation of how the changes improved the team. If it’s not obvious, it’s not good enough.
The name of the reliever turned two-time All-Star starter turned reliever once more is again popping up in Rumorville. The chatter is no longer as surprising as it once was. It’s the timing that seems off.
Martinez’s problems staying healthy, and more importantly his problems sticking with the team’s preferred path toward keeping him healthy, have frustrated the organization at times. His off-the-field escapades have at times made things complicated for both Martinez and the team. But these events are old news now.
Martinez has had a quiet season off the field. It would have been hard to imagine writing this a couple of seasons ago, but there have been times this season when it’s even easy to forget Martinez is on the team. That would be impossible if he was pitching in his preferred place, as a lead member of the starting staff. Instead his shoulder setback during spring training had him pitching out of the bullpen, and not in the clear-cut closer role that adds a noticeable oomph to Martinez’s game. That was until closer Jordan Hicks met Tommy John. And now, things have changed.
Martinez being dangled in trade talks, as most recently mentioned in a report by MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal, is a possibility that has existed since the Cardinals shopped Martinez last season. The difference between last season and this point of this season, of course, is the absence of the hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball from the Cardinals’ bullpen. The loss of Hicks has been lessened by the presence of Martinez.
While he makes it very clear that his goal is to one day return to the rotation, Martinez taps into something extra as a closer. He’s proven that again this season. Between Hicks’ injury and the start of Thursday night’s game in Cincinnati, Martinez is four-for-four in save opportunities. That includes his high-wire act against the Pirates in Wednesday’s 6-5 win. Martinez inherited a two-run lead to start the ninth. He induced a Starling Marte groundout to end the game, but not after allowing back-to-back two-out singles and putting the tying run on third base and the winning run on first. And? Marte never saw a ball in his game-ending four-pitch at-bat. The second strike he foul-tipped read 99.2 mph on the radar gun. The four-seamer he grounded to shortstop Paul DeJong read 99.7 mph. That save improved Martinez’s record as closer to 11 in 13 chances dating back to last season, which also wound up with him in the closer’s role. See what I mean about Martinez rising to the occasion as the closer?
The contract extension Martinez signed in 2017 pays him $11.7 million this season through 2021. After that, back-to-back team options kick in for the following two seasons. That means the Cardinals could then cut ties for a pittance. By today’s standards, this money is not out of line for a performing closer. Remember, the Cardinals once paid Greg Holland $14 million for one season, then paid him to walk away.
If Hicks is here and healthy, trading Martinez makes more sense — if the Cardinals are ready to punt on the 27-year-old’s potential as a premier starter moving forward. Right now, the speculation doesn’t add up. As always, it’s impossible to judge one side of a potential trade. It depends on what you get in return, right? If the Cardinals can create answers to an unpredictable rotation and often-powerless lineup by trading away Martinez, then this team might improve. Just don’t overlook the strength that would be weakened in the process. And don’t forget that Hicks could be out a season and a half, due to his age (22) and the timing of his elbow injury. Few teams can handle the loss of a pitcher like Hicks like the Cardinals have, and it’s because they have been able to turn to Martinez.
It’s become as easy to imagine Martinez pitching elsewhere as it is to imagine him leading a future Cardinals rotation. The signs of wear between team and player have existed for a while now. A move at some point would not be shocking.
But that move, if made now, likely creates a weakness.
Softening the grip on save situations does not seem like a winning move for a team looking to make the most out of the present.