The grass isn’t always greener on the other side

The MLB offseason, often called the “hot stove” (though at this point the stove might only be set to low), is generally a time of great hope for teams and their fans. Teams explore all the options and for fans are excited because anything could happen. Discussion of what could happen dominates interactions. From trade polls to throwing ideas against the wall to national media connecting the dots, conjecture is the name of the game.

And discussing one of those conjectures is where we find ourselves today. Last week it was reported that the New York Mets have been exploring trading Noah Syndergaard to see who is interested and what a potential return would look like. According to those same reports, the Mets want MLB ready pieces rather than prospects who may be further away. Seeing this discussion, I threw something random against the wall to see if it stuck.

It doesn’t stick, but I was curious to see the reaction. I was actually surprised by the response. Overwhelmingly my followers decided that the Mets would be the ones to say no, and after thinking about it a bit, I’m actually baffled by that.

First, Martinez and Syndergaard have performed very similarly and Martinez has the more valuable contract situation. And then the Cardinals would be throwing in two other players? I think it’s a pretty classic example of undervaluing your lawn because your neighbor’s grass looks nice.

Much of the undervaluing, or should I say devaluing, of Martinez is courtesy of the public opinion on him. He’s immature, overemotional, unreliable, likes doing crazy things with his hair, or any number of other things that people point at as reasons to suggest he may not ever fulfill his potential. The reporting late in 2018 about his lack of punctuality and preparedness as a starter, simply added to it. But those are things that affect the opinion of Martinez, but not his overall value as a player. That will come down to his performance on the field and his contract.

Performance-wise, Martinez and Syndergaard are two of the finest young pitchers in baseball and match up pretty closely. Since 2015, when both became full time starting pitchers, Syndergaard does have a slight edge.

Syndergaard, 26 years old
2.93 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 132 ERA+, 81 OPS+, 2.0 BB/9, 9.9 K/9

Martinez, 27 years old
3.22 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 125 ERA+, 85 OPS+, 3.4 BB/9, 8.9 K/9

Syndergaard walks fewer and strikes out more, which gives him a sizable advantage in independent fielding metrics, which is why I didn’t use them here. Further, I believe that fielding independent metrics favor one particular style of pitcher, and Syndergaard might as well be the model for that style of pitcher.

But these guys are just really close in performance. The differences in ERA and WHIP translate to just 6 runs and 26 more base runners over 200 innings.

However, there is one thing Martinez has clearly done better than Syndergaard, and that’s the sixth tool: staying healthy. Martinez has thrown 180.1 innings more than Syndergaard since the start of the 2015 season, basically an entire season. That has significant value as you consider who you can depend on to take the ball going forward.

Another major difference is in contract situations. Years of team control is almost more important than performance when it comes to determining trade value, especially when we’re talking about years with less than market rate salaries.

Syndergaard was a “Super Two” player and will have three years of arbitration remaining with the Mets and will be a free agent following the 2021 season.

Martinez has three years remaining under contract at a cost of $36.1 million and then a $16.5 million option for 2022 and a $17.5 million option for 2023. That’s up to five years remaining under contract.

Those two extra years of team control and up to five years of cost certainty really tilt the value scale towards Martinez. Martinez is the more valuable trade piece between the two and should command a larger return in a trade.

So then throw in a player in Jose Martinez who has hit over .300 in each of the past two seasons and a top catching prospect in Carson Kelly on top of Martinez and the Cardinals are the group that should clearly say no because the trade makes them worse.

The Mets, on the other hand, should take that trade and flip Martinez for what they wanted for Syndergaard and more.

The response indicates just how much Martinez is undervalued by Cardinals’ fans. I’m sure this is a problem with every fan base, but there is a habit to undervalue your own team’s Major League talent while overvaluing prospects and players on another team.

I think this is because you watch and dissect all your own team’s games, so you become intimately familiar with all your own players’ warts and shortcomings, but most of your experience watching other teams and their players is based on highlights.

In my opinion, if Carlos Martinez can put up numbers that make him one of the top-15 starting pitchers in Major League Baseball over the past four years while dealing with complaints about his maturity, dedication, and preparedness, just imagine what he could do if he ever applied himself.

This past year when he went down with his lat strain in May, which really derailed his season, Martinez had made eight starts and posted a 1.62 ERA. That’s better than half his previous career low through eight starts. It was by far the best start of any season in his career. Can he do that again? Was that a glimpse of what is to come? It very well could be.

So consider whether you’d rather Martinez figure it out in a Cardinals’ uniform or against us? I know what I’d choose.

Jon Doble has been writing about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2010. You can also find him on Twitter at @GroundRuleDoble. Thank you for reading. 

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