JUPITER, Fla. -- To understand why Jose Martinez is thrilled to still be a Cardinal, why he’d rather be here in a camp with no certain fit than one where a job would be promised, you best understand the place Martinez was at when he became a Cardinal for the first time.
Actually, he was a Redbird, sent off to Triple-A Memphis when the Royals dealt him for cash two months into the 2016 season. Still frustrated by the fact that, as the Pacific Coast League batting champ, he hadn’t earned a September summons from Kansas City the year before, Martinez arrived uncertain if he’d ever crack a Major League roster.
And then he met Mike Shildt.
Seeing hints of disillusionment and disappointment still festering with his new roster addition, Shildt, then a second-year-Triple-A manager, made one promise to Martinez the first day they met: a fresh start.
It was the foundation for a relationship that continued to St. Louis, with Martinez arriving later that ’16 season and Shildt a year later as a coach. The two continue to connect in unique ways, all of which are seeped in trust and respect. It’s why Martinez feels certain that Shildt will find a way to make sure he fits.
“I am 100 percent comfortable with him being in charge of everything here with me,” Martinez said. “I respect him. I know he respects me. I’m just going to trust it will work out. I don’t know what position I’m going to play this year or where I fit, but I knew I wanted to stay with the Cardinals this year. And I’m not saying that just to say that. I feel good here.”
“That is a huge compliment, a huge compliment to Jose and our group,” Shildt responded. “Look, he allowed himself the opportunity to get here to the big leagues. We were fortunate to be able to give him that opportunity. … A guy that’s willing to appreciate where he is and what he’s doing for the greater good is a great story.”
Some of that trust is blind for now, in that Shildt doesn’t have all the answers to give. How many starts Martinez will get and where they’ll come is not scripted, nor entirely within Martinez’s control. Dexter Fowler remains atop the depth chart in right field until he plays his way out of that spot. Marcell Ozuna is entrenched in left and Paul Goldschmidt at first.
As those pieces fell into place this winter, Martinez was left as the one without a starting job.
“It’s OK. It’s like a housekeeping thing,” Martinez said. “It’s more fun like that. It makes me work more and harder. I don’t like to feel that I have something sure because baseball can change in a day.”
Martinez’s view is shaped through experience. Throughout his time in the organization, Martinez has been a hitter without a clear defensive home. Yet he elbowed his way onto the Opening Day roster with a standout spring in 2017 and drew 590 at-bats in 2018.
That he would get a chance to play his way into a more prominent role again wasn’t a certainty throughout the winter. Understanding that Martinez’s ideal fit would be as a designated hitter, the Cardinals fielded offers for the 30-year-old throughout the offseason. Underwhelmed by the trade proposals they received, the organization determined it was more advantageous to keep a hitter who has a career .309/.372/.478 slash line in 270 big league games than give him away for little return.
Martinez acknowledged following the rumors and rumblings from afar, always hoping for the same outcome – an opportunity to entrust his career in the hands of the manager whose promise of a fresh start propelled him to this point in the first place.
“He’s got my back,” Martinez said. “And I’m going to have his.”