JUPITER, Fla. • On the same day Carlos Martinez told the Cardinals he would be an enthusiastic member of the bullpen if called upon for that role, the team received a reminder that filling his absence in the rotation remains a challenge.
Like Martinez’s answer to how he views the fork in the road he is once again moving toward, the organization’s plans for its rotation are evolving in real time.
One small step forward: Martinez will return to throwing from flat ground Thursday.
One small step back: Dakota Hudson, the Cardinal perceived to be leading the pack in the race to replace Martinez, encountered some turbulence in his latest under-the-microscope start.
Before Hudson allowed two hits and three walks in three innings of Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to the Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium, Martinez shared what he told the Cardinals in a morning meeting regarding the current state of his problematic throwing shoulder and what comes next.
Martinez, who will not pitch in a spring training game and will be on the injured list come opening day, will need to continue to prove his health as he nears the point in his recovery where the team will decide how to best use the electric stuff that has made him both a two-time All-Star starter and potent closer. The righthander, sidelined for 25 days by his latest bout of shoulder weakness, is moving forward once more. Fingers are crossed.
“Much better, thanks to God,” Martinez said through team translator Carlos Villoria. “It’s really at peace, really improved. I just thank God for helping me to heal really fast. Right now, I just hope the shoulder is strong enough to pitch. Go from there.”
Tests that showed weakness in the first week of camp now show strength, and the structure of the shoulder is, as manager Mike Shildt explained, “as sound as it can be for anybody that pitches as much as these guys pitch.” Martinez will be reevaluated in one week. Two successful weeks could lead him to throwing off the mound.
If he’s a reliever, his path to St. Louis would be shorter than if he’s built up for the rotation. While challenging, it could be possible that Martinez makes that transition, relief to rotation, while pitching for the Cardinals.
“I’m a starter,” Martinez said earlier this spring.
That response has since been revised.
“I’m a starter, but whatever the manager needs me, I’ll be there,” Martinez said. “Those are his decisions.”
So what does the manager say?
“We would all like him to start,” Shildt said. “We would like that to happen. But we will check where we are, and know it’s a possibility he could go to the bullpen. It’s good to know he’s a good teammate, and is willing to be open to that.”
Martinez makes starter money and has a 48-32 record and 3.28 ERA as a starter since 2015. He has also landed on the injured list three times since 2018, not including this spring setback. His shift to the bullpen late last season was supposed to be temporary, but his 1.47 ERA in 18 1/3 innings and five saves in five chances created talk that his best value, health considered, might be in relief. Would fewer innings for Martinez mean more maximized performance? Could a shoulder that has robbed him of recent starts handle the stress of a season’s worth of relief? These are questions the Cardinals are working through.
“The other thing, in Carlos’ case, is really about how confident he and we are in his ability to handle X number of months in a starting capacity,” Shildt said. “We don’t want to have any setbacks with anything we have had in the past with him, as far as not being able to go past four or five, six innings, and not feel like he can maintain the capacity of what that looks like.”
Where Martinez is eventually directed also depends on how the rotation performs as he progresses.
One start after Hudson cruised through an Astros lineup that lacked some of its biggest stars, he labored against a Marlins lineup that, while lacking in general, might start for Miami on opening day. Catcher Matt Wieters, pitching coach Mike Maddux and Hudson had planned to emphasize Hudson’s changeup and breaking balls instead of his familiar sinkers and cutters. Execution was off. Pitches (69) piled up. One of the walks was issued to a pitcher. And yet, Hudson escaped with just one run allowed.
“I really didn’t feel like I owned anything out there,” Hudson said.
He was asked how he balances trying to impress the team’s decision-makers with trying to take advantage of the pitch-strengthening opportunities offered in Grapefruit League games.
“If you are not out there trying to get better, you are not doing anything,” he answered. “I don’t want to be stuck in the same spot forever. I want to be better as I go.”
With Martinez’s future uncertain, the Cardinals’ projected rotation reads as follows: Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright and ... TBD.
Challenging Hudson in the competition now that Alex Reyes has been steered toward the major league bullpen are John Gant, Austin Gomber and Daniel Ponce de Leon. Gant will throw two innings in a minor league squad game Thursday. Ponce de Leon will start Friday. Gomber is expected to pitch in an upcoming game out of the bullpen.
Shildt warned against reading too far into whether a candidate for the rotation is starting or relieving right now.
“We’ve got to narrow that down soon,” he said. “But, as of this moment, those are the four guys that are vying for it.”
A fifth, delayed but progressing, is throwing again.