Mike Matheny rounded out the only major “competition” that they had taking place in camp this year, by naming Joe Kelly the fifth starter going into the season and sending Carlos Martinez to the bullpen where he will resume the late inning work that solidified his place with the club last October. And despite Martinez’s clearly superior spring as a starter, it was ultimately the best move for the team.
In many regards, it was never really a competition that was meant to favor Martinez, and that is not a bad thing. Martinez proved that he had grown as a pitcher, showing everything imaginable that could be asked of him to make the rotation if all things were created equal. Across four starts, he surrendered only three runs in 15 innings, including a one-run, 5.1 inning outing against the Twins last week. While his raw arm strength has never been in question, he proved that he can maintain it over extended innings with solid control and an expanded secondary arsenal to create outs. Basically, he proved that he can pitch, over just blow away batters in a short time span, has he did last October, when he struck out 11 in just over 12 innings pitched over three rounds.
Conversely, Kelly’s numbers have not been as impressive (7.71 ERA, six strikeouts to four walks in just over nine innings before yesterday’s 5+ innings of no-hit ball versus Houston), but it is not as much about outcome for him, as he has proven himself capable of holding a rotation spot in parts of the past two years. However, once Jaime Garcia went down with a continuation of the shoulder injury that has hampered him for nearly year it became more of a showcase chance for Martinez versus a chance to solidify his position for Kelly.
And both of those ends were achieved, despite it being packaged as a race for a rotation spot. The reason being that the most useful place for Martinez to be is at the end of the bullpen, due to the overhaul of late-game options. Gone are Edward Mujica and John Axford, whom despite playing lesser roles than Martinez last fall, represented the only experienced options in either the eighth or ninth inning on the club. Likewise, Jason Motte will not be ready for Opening Day, which left a glaring need in the bridge to the ninth inning that only Martinez could adequately fill. As Trevor Rosenthal proved last year, taking a role outside of the rotation—even for a career starter—can create a major strength for the team, as it shortens the window to hang in with the Cardinals before the organization’s two liveliest arms take over for the final six outs.
On the other side of the coin, Kelly fits the bill best for the rotation. A versatile option with 35 career starts under his belt (including the postseason), he is just a few months removed from being an integral part of the rotation down the stretch last year and has proved his starting chops. Despite the strong showing from Martinez, it is a situation where “rocking the boat” is not necessary. Kelly is better than a fifth option for a great deal of other teams and is a matchup asset in the role, the same way that Martinez is in the bullpen currently.
As all things are, this will continue to be a fluid situation. The returns on each as the season progresses will indicate how each continues in the roles they have been assigned currently, as will the dominoes of potential comebacks from Motte and Garcia and how that could alter the staff’s pitching alignment.
But one thing that is for certain, the versatile Cardinal staff continues to find beneficial roles to actively use the surplus of pitching wealth that it has at its disposal. And if history is any indicator of what is to come, as it always is, having options is never a bad thing.