JUPITER, Fla. -- With the regular season just days away, it's prime time for predictions. Projecting division winners and World Series champs are as commonplace this time of year as busted brackets.The Cardinals may not be a popular pick in these preseason team polls -- and yes, they'll channel that
JUPITER, Fla. -- With the regular season just days away, it's prime time for predictions. Projecting division winners and World Series champs are as commonplace this time of year as busted brackets.
The Cardinals may not be a popular pick in these preseason team polls -- and yes, they'll channel that as motivation -- but the individual side of things looks very different.
Alex Reyes was poised to be a Rookie of the Year favorite until Tommy John surgery interrupted his ascension. He'll have to wait another year for the chance to pursue a postseason award. Carlos Martinez, on the other hand, won't.
Martinez has been a budding star for a few years now, and is he nudging his way into being one of the game's elite starting pitchers. Fresh off signing a multiyear contract in February, Martinez will become the youngest Cardinals pitcher since 1989 to make an Opening Day start when he takes the ball Sunday night against the Cubs.
Could it be the start of a Cy Young Award campaign?
Martinez ranked fifth among all National League pitchers with a 5.4 Wins Above Replacement value last year. That came in a season where Martinez also ranked among the league leaders in ground-ball double plays (33, first), wins (16, fifth), quality starts (20, sixth), ERA (3.04, ninth) and innings pitched (195 1/3, tenth).
With his repertoire maturing and his willingness to trade speed for efficiency paying off, Martinez can still improve. And if he does, there's little reason why he couldn't challenge the likes of Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Lester for postseason honors, whether that be as a Cy Young Award or Esurance Pitcher of the Year Award candidate.
Asked whether he was eyeing this as his next achievement, Martinez grinned.
"I feel prepared, physically and mentally, more than ever," Martinez responded.
It's been 12 years since the Cardinals' last Cy Young Award winner (Chris Carpenter). They've had an MVP recipient (Albert Pujols, 2009) more recently than that, but they haven't placed anyone in the Top 5 of that vote since '13. Last year, Yadier Molina was the only Cardinals player listed on any MVP Award ballots, and he garnered just two 10th-place votes.
But if the way Molina performed in March is any harbinger for what he'll offer over the next six months, he might reinsert himself into that conversation.
Molina, who was a top-4 finisher in the NL MVP Award vote in 2012 and '13, possesses the ability to impact the game on both sides of the field perhaps more than any other player in the game. He's an elite defender who will be sniffing his ninth Gold Glove Award -- something he was denied last season -- and his second-half finish in '16 (.365 average; 89 hits) served as a reminder that there is still plenty to offer at the plate.
Molina, 34, hardly looked his age while leading Puerto Rico to the World Baseball Classic championship game, and the Cardinals aren't ready to back off on having him catch 130-plus games.
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast.