C-Mart, Kim highlight spring rotation battle

February 7th, 2020

ST. LOUIS -- With Spring Training quite literally days away, it’s time to start looking at the competition that will take place on the roster this spring and into the season.

Despite the Cardinals not doing much this winter to shake up their roster, there are still some intriguing position battles we’re going to see in camp. Where is going to play? The versatile switch-hitter can play up to six positions and offers the Cardinals some flexibility in the lineup. Who will make up the outfield? There seem to be seven outfielders vying for three spots, and the Cardinals are looking for some new faces to bring a spark to the offense.

And what will the rotation look like? The Cardinals mostly kept their biggest strength from last season together for 2020, but the fifth rotation spot is shaping up to be a good competition. While the offense (and thus, the outfield) is the biggest storyline come spring, perhaps the fifth starter is the most intriguing position battle to watch based on the options the Cardinals have. Let’s take a look at who we’ll see compete for it in Jupiter, Fla., this spring.

Carlos Martínez

The first question the Cardinals will need to answer about Carlos Martínez is his health. He has been limited by shoulder injuries in the past -- it’s the reason for his move to the bullpen last season -- and he had a procedure at the start of the offseason to help with ongoing discomfort. At Winter Warm-Up last month, Martínez said he felt strong, and that weekend, he was cleared for a bullpen session.

Martínez, 28, is going to have to take the leap to throwing around 70 pitches and repeat that for the Cardinals to feel good about the right-hander’s health, durability and performance. Unless health or performance make the call sooner, we’ll likely start seeing decisions being made about Martínez in March.

“I'm looking forward to being smart,” Martínez said in January. “Last season, I got a little frustrated. Now I'm trying to be smart and to be healthy. … I'm trying to be smart and not lose any days. Just preparing everything -- my arm and body -- and trying to be healthy and strong.”

If his shoulder does hold up, and he’s able to be effective, the Cardinals could be getting an elite starter back. In 2015, Martínez’s first All-Star year, he went 14-7 with a 3.01 ERA in 31 games (29 starts). He had 184 strikeouts compared to 63 walks. His second All-Star year was 2017, when he went 12-11 with a 3.64 ERA in 32 starts. He struck out 217 compared to 71 walks, and he had two complete games in his 205-inning year.

From 2015-17, when Martínez was mostly a starter (92 starts in 94 games), he had a .609 winning percentage, a 3.24 ERA and a 3.59 FIP (fielding independent pitching). Martínez hasn’t shown a regress in talent in the years he was moved to the bullpen -- he was a reliable closer last season with 24 saves and a 3.17 ERA in 48 1/3 innings. The Cardinals are optimistic that he can be a reliable starter again, too.

Martínez’s preference is to return to the rotation, and the Cardinals have opened a path for him to get there. He just needs to prove he’s healthy, durable and still able to compete from the first inning on instead of just the eighth or ninth. And if he suffers a setback, he can be moved to the bullpen and compete for the closer spot. Martínez is valuable regardless of the role he lands in, and the Cardinals are set up well because of it.

Kwang-Hyun Kim

Because the Cardinals don’t know what the spring holds for Martínez, they wanted to give themselves depth and flexibility. They’re hoping that Korean left-hander Kwang-Hyun Kim gives them just that.

The Cardinals signed Kim in December as a starter with the ability to go to the bullpen if needed, and that’s how they’ll approach the spring, as Kim competes with Martínez and others for a spot in the rotation. In the Korean Baseball Organization last year, Kim went 17-6 with a 2.51 ERA and 180 strikeouts over 190 1/3 innings in 31 games (30 starts). Over 12 seasons in the KBO, the 31-year-old had a 3.27 ERA and 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings. He missed the entire 2017 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he returned healthy and had a 2.98 ERA in ‘18.

Kim didn’t struggle with command when he returned to the mound -- he had 2.0 walks per nine innings in 2018 and 1.8 BB/9 last season. He has a fastball that hovers around the mid-90s, but his biggest weapon is his slider.

“When you look at our rotation going into the season, there’s certainly some question marks,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said after signing Kim. “We felt like having somebody, especially from the left side, that could start, had a lot of value to us. So I think the most important thing is, in KK’s case, he can be in either role. He’s going to come to camp, get stretched out and he’s going to get every opportunity to be a starter.”

Kim has the look of a relief pitcher, and it’s fair to question if his stuff will translate to the Majors or if he has enough to get through a lineup for a third time. Part of Martínez’s strength as closer was that he could throw all his pitches at hitters to keep them off balance.

If all things are equal, being a lefty certainly helps Kim’s chances, as the Cardinals haven’t had a left-hander consistently in the rotation since Jaime García in 2016. And Kim has a strong arm. If he can prove to be effective, the Cardinals could have another elite pitcher in their rotation or bullpen. That’s the thing about this roster competition; if the Cardinals go with Martínez, Kim will add a valuable piece to the bullpen, and vice versa.

Keep in mind, too, that it’s possible we could see Martínez and Kim in the rotation. While , , and seem like rotation locks, someone could underperform this spring or get injured.

Other candidates

The Cardinals will have up to 12 pitchers report to camp on Tuesday as starters, and all want the chance to crack the rotation. and are among this group, but they were important pieces to the bullpen last year and could be used there again, especially if the Cardinals need a closer with Martínez in the rotation.

, , Génesis Cabrera and Jake Woodford could all be used as depth and protection in Triple-A Memphis or in the Major League bullpen. is another possibility, although it’s likely that the former top prospect will be used in the bullpen this year as he works to stay healthy for the whole season.