Martinez rejoins Team USA as starter: 'It's incredibly special'

February 20th, 2023

SAN DIEGO -- When first got the offer -- a chance to pitch for Team USA at the World Baseball Classic -- he was elated. It had been something of a dream of his since he’d donned the USA jersey at the Olympics in 2021.

Then reality began to set in. Martinez had signed a three-year contract with the Padres as a starting pitcher. Team USA wanted to use Martinez as a reliever. The timing of the World Baseball Classic in mid-March was such that Martinez couldn't possibly pitch in relief, then build up to start for San Diego by the beginning of the season.

Martinez agonized, then made the only logical choice. He withdrew from the WBC -- all while holding out hope that a starting opportunity would emerge.

Sure enough, a starting job became available -- and it now belongs to Martinez. Following the recent withdrawals of Clayton Kershaw and Nestor Cortes, Martinez will pitch for Team USA at the World Baseball Classic next month. It’s not yet clear which games Martinez will start, but he’s been assured he’ll be part of the rotation.

"It's incredibly special for me to wear this uniform,” Martinez said. “With my family coming from Cuba, coming over here looking for opportunity ... it's incredibly humbling, and it's a great honor.”

Martinez’s mother was born in Cuba. His paternal grandparents were born in Cuba as well, giving birth to his father a year after their arrival in the United States. Clearly, Martinez takes great pride in pitching for Team USA, and he spoke about what it would mean to do so with his family in attendance. (No crowds were allowed at those Olympics in Tokyo.)

Logistically, Martinez says, almost nothing will change in his preparation for the season. He'll pitch on practically the same days he was slated to pitch in the Cactus League -- only he'll be doing so in a competitive environment with “USA” emblazoned across his chest.

"It should be the same build-up," Martinez said. “The dates we've been throwing around have worked seamlessly with the dates [pitching coach] Ruben [Niebla] had for me, and the schedule."

Martinez spent last spring building toward a starter’s workload as well, and he served in that capacity for the first two months. But with a full rotation, the Padres transitioned him to the bullpen, where he filled nearly every role imaginable. Martinez finished with a 3.47 ERA across 106 1/3 innings in 2022.

Live BP for Tatis
faced live pitching for the first time this spring, as the Padres went through extensive live batting practice on their backfields Monday.

Tatis has said he's swinging at 100 percent again, coming off surgeries on his left wrist and shoulder. He faced Martinez twice on Monday, shooting a sharp grounder toward shortstop, then striking out. Later, Tatis popped up against Robert Suarez.

Notably, Tatis is still employing the two-handed follow-through he'd used late in the 2021 season. He says that's not a result of his surgically repaired shoulder.

"It's just more compact," Tatis said. "I feel like I'm a better hitter that way."

Manager Bob Melvin noted that Tatis likely wouldn't start the team's opener on Friday against the Mariners. It's going to be a slow spring progression for Tatis, who missed the entire 2022 season due to a left wrist fracture and a PED suspension. Melvin also noted that Tatis would likely be reined in on the basepaths early in Cactus League play, for health purposes.

"It's going to be a balance, especially in Spring Training," Melvin said. "... We're going to ease him in, based on the fact that he hasn't played in quite some time and he's had two surgeries."

arrived in Padres camp on Monday and played catch. The veteran left-hander signed a Minor League deal last week, with a non-roster invite to camp. Barring injury, there's no obvious path to playing time for the 39-year-old Hamels, but he's in the mix as a depth rotation option.

• Outfielder has been limited by a right calf strain, Melvin said, though the team says the injury is mild and he might only miss a small number of Cactus League games. Engel is vying for playing time in right field in Tatis' absence.

• Melvin noted that those early Cactus League games will likely be used to get the team’s WBC participants playing time, including a quick progression to back-to-back starts (whereas typically, regulars don't start consecutive games until around mid-March).