In many ways, this spring is no different than those of years past for Carlos Martínez: He is readying to contribute to the Cardinals in the upcoming season, and he wants to do so as a starter.
What’s different is Martínez’s preparation coming off a season where he was sidelined by a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, one that landed him in the hospital and one he said never let him fully return to form down the stretch and be the productive pitcher he believes he can be. He played winter ball in the Dominican Republic for the first time in years, which he hopes can serve as a launching pad into 2021.
Martínez made five starts last season -- struggling in all of them. He allowed 22 earned runs (9.90 ERA), 16 of which came after he spent the month of August on the injured list, with his asthma history further exacerbating the toll the virus took, he said.
“After COVID, I didn’t feel 100 percent [with] my body,” Martínez said Wednesday, the official report date for Cardinals pitchers and catchers in Jupiter, Fla. “I was trying to help the team, and that happened. … My mind, I was 100 percent on the team, but my body, it was without strength.”
Now, coming off an offseason that saw him pitch well in the Dominican and in the Caribbean Series -- solely as a starter -- Martínez once again remains intent on returning to his original calling, the one that made him an All-Star in 2015 and ‘17: starting games for the Cardinals.
Yadier Molina, who faced off against Martínez in the Caribbean Series, said he thought his batterymate looked stronger and more poised on the mound; Molina was 0-for-3 against Martínez in the Dominican Republic’s 5-1 win over Puerto Rico on the first day of action.
“He looks more mature,” Molina said recently.
Part of that comes from his preparation. Playing in the Dominican Winter League for the first time since the 2014-15 offseason, Martínez said he’s worked to refine his pitch combinations, a crispness that helped make him a top rotation talent from 2015-18. In three starts over the winter, Martínez was 1-0, allowing three runs over 14 2/3 innings (1.84 ERA).
“I feel great with all my pitches,” said Martínez, 29. “One hundred percent focused. On my mind, focused, on my workout, focused, on working hard. … If I didn’t play in the winter league, I wouldn’t [be as prepared] right now.”
Alex Reyes, a promising young flamethrower (much like Martínez of yesteryear), also has his sights set on that final spot. As do several other swingmen on the roster who made starts in 2020. Should the Cardinals stretch their rotation to six, as some teams are mulling over with the uncertainty of pitcher health following the abbreviated season, the chances increase.
Martínez, entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, with club options in 2022 and ’23, feels he can contribute. There’s no question how he wants to -- the same way he’s wanted to every Spring Training.
“One hundred percent a starter,” he said. “I feel great, I feel power in my arm. I feel good.
“I want to be [here] more years ... I want to work hard to be on the team and show them I can start again and I can make the All-Star [team], and I can push the team to the World Series.”