JUPITER, Fla. - As a boy growing up on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, small and wiry Carlos Martinez had dreams that, like his arm, were far bigger than his frame suggested. Through a translator this week, the Cardinals' righty explained that when he envisioned his goal he wanted "to have control of a game."
By DERRICK GOOLD
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
He just thought it would be as a shortstop.
Now he knows better.
"Thinking about when he was small and out into his future, he always wanted to play a special role on the team," said Moises Rodriguez, the Cardinals' director of international scouting who served as translator for the Spanish-speaking righty. "He likes to take command of the game. Being a starting pitcher on a team means taking that more responsibility, more control of whatever game he's appearing in."
A lightning bolt out of the bullpen at the end of last postseason, Martinez will start the Cardinals' exhibition schedule as a contender for the rotation. The Cardinals' open a 28-game exhibition spring schedule Friday afternoon at Roger Dean Stadium against the Miami Marlins, and Martinez will make the first Grapefruit League start of his career. The lithe, 22-year-old righty will aim for at least a couple innings and as much as 40 pitches. In a February duel of power righties, Martinez will start opposite Marlins righty Jose Fernandez, the reigning National League Rookie of the Year.
The assignment, which Martinez described as "the beginning of some positive things," is strikingly familiar. A year ago, another young reliever with a power fastball and aspirations of starting got the Cardinals' first spring game.
Trevor Rosenthal soon returned to the bullpen to steady it.
"Fair statement," manager Mike Matheny said. "We wanted Trevor to work last winter and see what it looked like when he came in (as a starter). We gave him a few chances once the games started. It became real evident where he was going to be most valuable for our club with how things were unraveling. That is very similar with Carlos. Each of these guys has an opportunity to make us stop and think and pay attention to what they're doing and what they'd like to do."
Martinez has been clear with his intent to start. He said it's the role he craves when asked at the Winter Warmup and it's one he wanted to prepare for by playing winter ball. Martinez logged 23 2/3 innings as a reliever in the majors during the regular season, and he emerged in October as the eighth-inning answer. He had as many strikeouts (11) as baserunners allowed in his 12 2/3 innings of relief during the postseason, and he dazzled Boston and the radar gun with a fastball that averaged 98.4 mph and a sinker that he dialed back a bit to 96.4 mph.
He started two games in the Dominican Winter League this past December and struck out nine batters in 6 1/3 innings. He allowed three hits and no walks. Through live batting practice in camp, he has been ahead of other pitchers because of the work - and just as leg-kicking flamboyant as ever.
"His ball looks way different when you try to hit," said catcher Yadier Molina, who had never faced his teammate until this past week in a batting practice session. "Everything around it is moving. It's always moving."
His start, Matheny said, "is hopefully a continuation of what we're seeing out here live. The ball is exploding out of his hand. He has a real good presence. You watch him finishing his pitching, not even breathing hard. It's pretty amazing with the stuff that's being displayed. The feedback you get from your hitters and it's pretty universal: Every time he walks off the mound and they walk out of the cage it's, 'Wow.'"
Martinez missed his chance to make this impression a year ago because he waited through a laborious process for a work visa. An application process that started before Christmas 2012 did not end until it was too late for him to participate in big-league camp last spring. He started the year in the rotation in Class AA and vaulted straight from it to the majors.
His debut pitch was 96 mph.
His second was 97 mph.
His fourth was a curveball at 80 mph.
He got his footing when he dropped that tortoise pitch and went full hare.
"He thought that his curveball was his second-best pitch," Matheny said. "But it was something that he was telegraphing by slowing down his body and his arm speed. Lilly gave him the freedom to really let a slider go hard to where it was the same intensity and same look as his fastball. It was the difference-maker."
Throwing hard was how Martinez became a Cardinal in the first place. Raised by his grandma, who he calls "mami," Martinez followed that dream to a contract with the Red Sox - as a shortstop. Known as Carlos Matias at the time, he agreed to a $160,000 bonus. Major League Baseball voided it when his paperwork failed to pass an investigation, and he was suspended for a year. The Cardinals spent that time researching and piecing together a thick binder that proved his birth date and his name, Carlos Martinez. They got him for $1.5 million.
It wasn't long after that Martinez was the electric neon star of the Cardinals power wave. He hit 100 mph as a starter in the lower minors, and he drew persisting comparisons to Pedro Martinez. In the minors, he would get too cute with his off-speed stuff, drifting from his fastball. Lilliquist steered back to the game that fits him best - velocity. By October, Martinez was coming out of the bullpen firing his high-octane sinker and, 30 percent of the time, a slider that sizzled in the upper 80s mph.
"I feel very comfortable with that pitch," Martinez said. "It's a pitch that I've worked out, and I've found confidence in it."
The curve vanished.
But not its lesson.
As he readies to make his play for a starting role, Martinez has brought back several pitches to his mix while maintaining the power delivery. He doesn't slow his arm for a curve. He doesn't hint with his body that a changeup is coming. Lilliquist said in the bullpen work, Martinez has shown the consistent delivery that doesn't tip his pitches - the kind of delivery he'll need as a starter. He didn't have trouble maintaining his velocity in the minors through his five starts that lasted at least six innings. Controlling his other pitches was the challenge.
"Some guys throw 95 mph, 96 mph and you can see it very well," said second baseman Mark Ellis, who was with the Dodgers in last year's postseason against the Cardinals. "With Carlos, you've got to start so early, and then it's coming in on you or he has a sinker. He can go now and drop a breaking ball on you, too. He took it to another level."
The week started with the club expressing "embarrassment" about Martinez's collection of graphic images on his public Twitter page, a social media misstep that the righty took responsibility for Wednesday. He will take a break from social media and "focus on baseball." Martinez will be followed Friday by lefty Tyler Lyons, another candidate to start, and then a series of relievers that includes Keith Butler and newcomer Pat Neshek. How the pitching staff develops around Martinez could influence where he opens the regular season as much anything he does in his starts. But with the first pitch he makes today he has his dream in hand.
This is first chance to control his role.
"He's proved he can get any kind of outs in the eighth inning and in a big situation and in hostile environments," Lilliquist said. "He has an opportunity here to see what else he has. ... There again it boils down to need. What is best for the Cardinals? That is the whole decision-making process. That's it."