TCN St. Louis Cardinals 2019 Top Story #9: The Starter Who Couldn’t Start

photo: Carlos Martinez and Yadier Molina (Jeff Curry/Imagn)

Now 28 years of age, Carlos Martinez had long before established himself as the St. Louis Cardinals’ ace, staking a claim as one of the better pitchers in the National League.

To back that up, the right-hander had been named The Cardinal Nation’s St. Louis Starting Pitcher of the Year for three consecutive seasons – from 2015 through 2017. During that time, he logged bWARs of 3.8, 5.3 and 2.9, respectively. Ironically, his best year of the three, 2016, was the only one in which Martinez was not named to the National League All-Star team.

Carlos Martinez

However, his 2018 and 2019 were another matter entirely.

2018 brought injury and uncertainty. After having made 92 starts over the prior three seasons and never spending a day on the injured list, Martinez had three separate stints on the shelf in 2018. It began with a lat strain from May 9 to June 4. Next was a right oblique strain, causing him to miss the minimum 10 days, from June 20 to 29. Finally, and most troubling was a right shoulder strain that kept him sidelined from July 31 to August 20.

The last time, Martinez’ shoulder was not deemed strong enough for him to return to the rotation, so after having made 18 starts, his final 15 appearances of the season were out of the bullpen. He picked up two wins, three holds and five saves, with no losses or blown saves along with a strong 1.47 ERA.

The saga took a downward turn as the Cardinals suggested Martinez did not completely follow the strengthening program they had prescribed for the 2018-2019 off-season, which had been designed to enable him to return to the rotation in the spring.

In February, he was put on a no-throw program due to shoulder weakness and late in the month, he received a platelet-rich plasma injection to reduce inflammation and further healing.

Martinez did not make an appearance during 2019 spring training, though he resumed throwing mid-March. He opened the season on the injured list with what was called a rotator cuff strain. Not until May 17 was he was activated. At that point, he was placed in a relief role, with Martinez telling reporters that he planned to return to the rotation around the All-Star break.

Though Martinez began to build up by going more than one inning three times in his first month active, it seemed more due to his efficiency. During that time, he never threw more than 30 pitches in any outing.

On June 20, manager Mike Shildt disclosed that Martinez would not be starting anytime in the near future. Little did he know that after just two more appearances over the next three days, closer Jordan Hicks would be diagnosed with triceps tendinitis that quickly became a torn UCL and season-ending Tommy John surgery.

In Hicks’ absence, Martinez returned to the closer’s role and all talk of starting ended.

However, in mid-July, the story took another twist. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported that the Cardinals were “open” to trading Martinez, who was in his third year of a team-friendly five-year contract plus two club options. Nothing became of it, though. Given the ongoing questions about his shoulder, this is hardly a surprise.

Bridging August into September, with his club in the midst of a tight pennant race, Shildt used Martinez in four consecutive days, including one four-out save. It happened again from September 18-21 as the closer threw a total of 71 pitches (not including warm-ups) over four consecutive days, including the first three games of the Cardinals’ huge series sweep in Chicago.

Based on his usage, one could draw the conclusion that Martinez’ shoulder was resilient, but still unable to handle more than 30 pitches on a given day. It was a limit he exceeded just twice all season – once in June and once in August.

Continuing the string of odd circumstances, in mid-September, Martinez was admitted into a St. Louis hospital with breathing distress, later attributed to asthma and allergies.

Martinez finished the regular season with 24 saves in 27 opportunities and a 3.17 ERA over his 46 appearances. He fanned 9.9 batters per nine but walked 3.4 per nine, with the free passes often contributing to his more eventful outings. His 1.2 fWAR ranked third in the pen, after Giovanny Gallegos and John Brebbia.

In the Division Series, Martinez was in the center of the action, both good and bad, with a win, a blown save and a loss. The closer was responsible for six earned runs in 3 1/3 innings. In the Championship Series, he was a non-factor, facing just two batters as the offense was dominated by the Nationals.

Within 10 days of the Cardinals’ elimination, Martinez was back in the news. He received another platelet-rich plasma injection in his balky shoulder, his second such procedure in 2019. The story broke via a social media post of a smiling Martinez in his hospital bed.

While the intention is again for Martinez to start in 2020, his recent history makes that an uncertain proposition. All the winter checkups in the world cannot provide complete assurance that his shoulder will be ready and able to handle a starter’s workload.

As a result, the Cardinals are rumored to be in the market for another starting pitcher to replace Michael Wacha. The closer’s job – at least until Hicks’ expected mid-season return – is another open question – again.

For the record, Martinez’ last start was on July 30, 2018. When his next will be is anyone’s guess. Chances are good, however, that this story will have more unexpected twists and turns still ahead.

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at Follow Brian on Twitter.

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