Shouldering The Load

If you want to look on the bright side of things, at least this year’s early pitching news didn’t involve Tommy John surgery.  So there’s that, at least.  However, like so many years, the Cardinals couldn’t get to their first exhibition game without a setback by one of their key players.  This year, it was Carlos Martinez dealing with his shoulder.

It’s what Martinez dealt with much of last year in various forms and it’s concerning that it is raising its head again this early.  After all, Martinez has just come off a winter of rest and rehab.  It’s fair to question whether two weeks of not throwing will be a solution or just delay it a bit from cropping up again.

It feels apparent that Martinez won’t be ready for the rotation on Opening Day.  It could be that he’ll be ready just a week or two later and any significant thoughts of roster juggling are really moot.  Somebody might make the Opening Day roster and somebody might temporarily slide into the rotation, but in the best case scenario Martinez is back in his accustomed role by mid-April at the latest.

What if it isn’t the best case scenario, though?  After all, it feels like it rarely is when it comes to the Cardinals and injuries.  What if Martinez is out for an extended period of time?  What if this moves him to the bullpen?  We talked this winter about what the roster crunch was looking like.  Freeing up a spot on the roster would help ease the minds of people like Chasen Shreve, John Brebbia, and Dominic Leone.  Even if it wasn’t a long-term solution, if it was a month or more that would give them time to add to their major league case, either for the Cardinals or for someone else.

Would the bullpen be an option for Martinez?  The Cardinals continue to leave that option on the table and, indeed, probably had some suspicions about Martinez’s shoulder before yesterday, which is why they had never sealed off that route in conversation.  As Derrick Goold pointed out on Twitter, though, being in the bullpen is probably more stressful for his shoulder than being on the regular starter routine.  Obviously, if everything was perfect, Martinez would be a starter given his talent and ability.  That said, the club could decide that, with proper monitoring and usage, Martinez could give them something out of the ‘pen where he couldn’t in the rotation and something is better than nothing.

We’ll have to wait and see on that, of course.  Martinez has been shut down until March 5, when he’ll be re-evaluated.  Hopefully a couple of weeks off will help but, as noted above, it’s not like he’s not been on this road for a while now.

Which brings us to the other aspect to this story.  Yesterday afternoon, Mark Saxon tweeted this out:

Saxon followed up this with another tweet noting that Mozeliak wasn’t questioning Martinez’s effort, but apparently there was some difference of opinion between the Cardinals’ medical staff, who wanted a more physical therapy approach, and Martinez’s health consultants, who favored strengthening the muscles via weight training.  (Mark also elaborated a bit more in his article at The Athletic.)

Which opens a whole other can of worms, doesn’t it?  On one hand, the team has a lot of money invested in Martinez and want him to be the best he can be.  Of course, we know what the reputation of the Cardinal medical staff has been in the past as well.  Some would understand why Martinez might be leery of blindly following their recommendations.  Still, without being in the room and seeing how the discussions went down or knowing the qualifications of Martinez’s camp, it feels like the Cardinals have a point.

As Benjamin Hochman wrote in his piece, this was supposed to be the offseason of accountability.  Yet Marcell Ozuna was able to work out almost all winter with limited information flowing back to St. Louis and now Martinez shows up to camp less than 100%.  I guess there’s always going to be outliers and maybe the club can learn better ways to get this information going forward, but it’s not the greatest of looks.  It’s too bad–and I’m not medical at all; I hardly even go to the doctor–that there wasn’t a way to see where he was at a few weeks ago, maybe by the turn of the calendar, and redirect him if it was clear the weight training wasn’t working.

This situation really changes the dynamic of the 2019 Cardinals.  Alex Reyes did start throwing to batters yesterday ahead of schedule, but can he fully replace Martinez?  He’s not likely to throw 180-200 innings this year.  In 2020, 2021?  Sure, he could be that guy.  In 2019, I don’t think so.  Even if he could be, what happens if Adam Wainwright isn’t as effective as we’d like him to be or Michael Wacha starts dealing with his own shoulder?  There are a lot of arms that could come up and replace–Dakota Hudson, Austin Gomber, even someone like John Gant who is out of options–but none of them are going to give you the quality that Martinez would if healthy.

And what happens if he does move to the bullpen?  Right now there’s one free spot out there, assuming health for everyone (which, in Luke Gregerson‘s case, might be a stretch).  If Martinez took that spot, especially if Gant didn’t go to the rotation, there’s no flexibility at all out there.  Everyone would be on contract or out of options other than Jordan Hicks.  That’s going to send people like Brebbia and Leone down to Memphis, even when they have no business being there.

It’s going to be something to watch, for sure.  I don’t think the relationship between the front office and Martinez has been all that strong for some time and this just weakens it further.  I’m not saying they are going to deal him off now, but if he gets back to full health and shows that he is still capable, I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime before his contract is up he’s on a different team.  That’s for farther down the line, though.  Right now, we wait until March 5, wondering if Martinez will be able to shoulder the load.

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