Almost every winter, pretty much every team — the Yankees included — adds one or two players who have had success at the major league level, but who have, for one reason or another, not performed at that level in recent years. In 2021, a trio of pitchers — Corey Kluber, Lucas Luetge, and Nestor Cortés — filled that role, to great collective success. In 2019, it was Troy Tulowitzki, a move that had quite a bit less success.
Could former Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martínez be that type of buy-low candidate the Yankees bring in for the 2022 season?
To describe Martínez’s career as a rollercoaster would be very much an understatement. As an international amateur free agent billed as equivalent to a first-round talent, he initially signed with the Red Sox at the age of 17 in 2009. Discrepancies about his name and date of birth, however, led Major League Baseball to void the contract, and despite the fact that he was cleared of any wrongdoing (poor record-keeping and the fact that he was adopted by his uncle led to the misunderstanding), the Red Sox declined to offer him another contract. The St. Louis Cardinals then swooped in, inking him to a contract 10 times more lucrative than his original deal with Boston.
Quickly establishing himself as one of the organization’s top prospects, Martínez flew through the Cardinals system, making his major league debut on May 3rd, 2013, and his first start on August 8th, 2013. He would pitch primarily out of the bullpen for his first two seasons, making eight spot starts in that time. During spring training in 2015, Martínez won the fifth starter job, and he would quickly become one of the best pitchers in the National League over the next three-and-a-half seasons, making two All-Star appearances (2015, 2017), and he was named the Opening Day starter twice (2017, 2018). In that time, he signed a five-year extension with St. Louis that would keep him under team control through 2022.
Everything changed, however, once Martínez hit the injured list with a lat strain in May 2018. In order to get their best pitcher back on the field for the stretch run, the Cardinals brought him back as a reliever on August 21st. He would once again come out of the bullpen in 2019, serving as the closer after starting the season on the IL with a strained rotator cuff.
Martínez returned to the rotation during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, making five starts and posting a 9.90 ERA (6.89 FIP) in 20 innings. He had only one outing in which he gave up less than one run per inning, and he was ultimately left off the postseason roster. His performance in 2021 was better, in the sense that a rotten tomato tastes better than a burnt shoe. In 82.1 innings over 16 starts, Martínez posted a 6.23 ERA (4.76 FIP) with a 1.372 WHIP and 5.8 K-BB%. Moreover, his Statcast data showed that none of this performance was an accident.
A thumb injury ended his season in early July. He would have season-ending surgery to fix a ligament tear in his right thumb, prompting the Cardinals to decline his team option for 2022 and allowing him to hit free agency.
So why should the Yankees be interested in the former top prospect? As a starting option, they absolutely should not. The velocity on his fastball has dropped three miles per hour and slightly over 100 rpm since 2019. His ability to induce hitters to chase has vanished, dropping from 31 to 24.5 percent in that time, forcing him to throw more pitches in the strike zone (up to 51.6 percent, from 47.7).
Simplifying his repertoire as a reliever, however, might present the best option for Martínez going forward as he attempts to revive his career. The key word here, however, is might, because unfortunately for the right-hander, based on the last two seasons, there’s no clear way for him to cut down his repertoire:
My initial reaction would be to increase the usage of the slider and changeup while cutting down on the four-seamer and cutter. Those two pitches with the lowest xBA and xSLG, however, also have hard hit percentages upwards of 40 percent — moreover, they are the two pitches that Statcast found to be the least valuable for him in 2021.
The path for the former top prospect is not easy, and it’s far from a sure bet that he will be able to reclaim even a fraction of his former success. Unless the Yankees have a clear path to resurrecting his career, it would be a waste of a roster spot to bring Martínez in on anything other than a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.