LAS VEGAS • If you have one must-win game today, and Cardinals manager Mike Shildt asks you to make the lineup, who plays right field?
You know the Cardinals front office wants you to write in Dexter Fowler, to pledge your allegiance to the bounce-back candidate, to get on board and voice your full support.
But how do you not pick Jose Martinez?
It’s more complicated, of course. It so often is.
The Cardinals made a multi-year, multi-million dollar commitment to Fowler that included a regrettable no-trade clause. There are more than $50 million reasons for the front office to hope this next chance turns into the one that turns things around from an abysmal and injury-shortened 2018. There are also multiple reasons — Fowler’s feet, Fowler’s declining speed, Fowler’s career-worst performance in 2018, not to mention fourth outfielder Tyler O’Neill’s 40 percent strikeout rate last season — to feel that it might be a good idea to have a more-proven major league candidate on the bench entering spring training.
Yet the Cardinals seem determined to trade away Martinez.
Let’s be clear-headed about this.
Martinez is not the perfect corner outfield candidate, not by a long shot. He’s 30 years old, and it’s a hard 30 after spending more than a decade in the minors and churning through foreign summer leagues. The Cardinals have younger outfield candidates in strikeout-prone but powerful O’Neill, Adolis Garcia, Lane Thomas, Justin Williams and more.
Martinez’s biggest challenge is a significant one: he’s not very good at playing corner outfield. Or first base, for that matter. And the opportunity at first just dwindled with the addition of MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt. Martinez’s chances are shrinking. And his defensive numbers are not appealing. Per Fielding Bible’s Baseball Reference, Martinez was six runs below average in right field last season, and five runs below average in right field. (For the record, Fowler was five runs below average in right field last season, and 18 runs below average in center field the year before that.)
Arguing that Martinez should be the starting right fielder is not the strongest of arguments, due to him not being a strong right fielder. I get that. He is a designated hitter in the National League, and until the National League decides to do something about being at a disadvantage when it comes to roster construction, there’s no perfect home for Martinez anywhere but the AL.
(Sidebar: Don’t believe me about the disadvantage? Consider the case of new Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Say he hits free agency. He is a Houston native. The Astros were the team the Cardinals beat out to land him via trade. If Houston is still interested if/when Goldschmidt reaches free agency after this season, the Astros can feel more comfortable offering length the Cardinals might not, considering they can slot Goldschmidt at DH as he ages. Disadvantage, Cardinals. Disadvantage, NL.)
Again, my point is not that Martinez should be the no-doubt starter in right field. But when you are poised to return to perhaps the biggest bounce-back candidate in baseball (Fowler) as your initial starter, there seem to be worse options to have on hand than the hitter who ranked second on the team in on-base plus slugging percentage in each of the past two seasons, especially when he has been a 1.5 WAR player in each of the past two seasons, and especially when he is extremely affordable and not set to hit free agency until 2023.
On top of that, with Gold Glove winner Goldschmidt playing first base in front of right field, and Gold Glove candidate Harrison Bader playing center field, Martinez would have the best defensive protection around him possible.
“Are we happy going into the season with him?” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said recently about the future of Martinez. “The answer is yes. But I think if we had the ability to find him a place where he might get more opportunity, we should explore that if it touches on something we need. We’re not going into the season where we feel like we have to move him to move him. I think he’s an exciting player, but at-bats are going to be tough, especially given the (Goldschmidt) move we just made. I think we have to be open-minded in how we want to think through that. If we got to the end of Spring Training and he was still a part of our team, we’d be fine with that.”
Martinez is a challenging fit. He has been much better than fine at the plate. Question is, how much can he bring?
The Cardinals desperately need an improved bullpen. Martinez, because of his offensive production, is likely their most tradeable chip. Seeing him depart for short-term, volatile relief help feels like it has a decent chance of stinging if the return to Fowler flops. Martinez is the kind of player you might not realize how much you miss until he’s gone.
Here’s the view from the manager’s spot on the bench:
“With the addition of Goldy, we have shored up first base, and eliminated a good portion of having to search for what that looks like, or trying to have to create offense out of that position, or some combination thereof. Jose, from our chair, is a real asset. Again, he has proven that he can be a top of the line hitter, a guy you can count on offensively and who can keep the line moving. Great guy. Great clubhouse guy. I love him like I love all of our guys. It is a little bit of a challenge to look up. Clearly, Dexter is committed to. And rightfully so. Give him the opportunity to regain his traction and his spot. Of course, Jose has proven it, so. Tyler O’Neill is a guy that has a skill set that we all feel comfortable and confident about. Right now, Jose is with us. And I’m happy about that.”