Each spring, a handful of storylines grab fantasy owners’ attention due to the vast difference in potential value on draft day. The stories could revolve around a spring position battle or the potential of a top prospect to steal a roster spot with a big spring camp. Sometimes its a rehabbing player who isn’t certain to be ready for opening day.
Perhaps an under-reported fantasy storyline is unfolding in St. Louis, and it doesn’t involve top prospect Oscar Taveras. The Cardinals suffered a blow to their starting rotation when left-hander Jaime Garcia experienced a setback with his surgically-repaired shoulder. He’s currently seeking a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews, according to ESPN.
The story isn’t really that Garcia re-injured his shoulder. Given his unfortunate injury history, the news was not shocking. It’s the repercussions of the injury that are interesting for fantasy owners. Right-handers Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez now find themselves locked in a battle for the fifth starter role. And for the latter, the fireballing Carlos Martinez, such a transition to the starting rotation could significantly increase his fantasy value for the 2014 season.
Martinez made a name for himself on the prospect circuit by reaching triple-digits with his fastball and dominating Double-A and Triple-A the past two seasons. He then dipped his toes into the major-league pool last year as a reliever, posting a 5.08 ERA in 28.1 innings out of the bullpen. The gaudy ERA doesn’t reflect the underlying skills, though, as shown by the 3.08 FIP and 3.40 SIERA. Plus, at this point, y’all know the small-sample size lecture by heart.
Throughout his minor-league career, the 22-year-old hurler had worked exclusively as a starter, so this spring training battle isn’t about the Cardinals attempting to reshape a reliever into a starter. Instead, the question is whether his repertoire can handle a starter role and what the likely difference in fantasy value if he does get the nod as the fifth starter.
I’ve been surprised by how many people believe Martinez can make a seamless transition to the rotation with his repertoire. His fastball is devastating, he possesses an impressive prospect pedigree, and he also got hitters to swing at 33.5% of pitches outside the strike zone last year; however, being so heavily reliant on a fastball-curveball mix isn’t ideal as a starter. His changeup will not only have to be utilized more often, but it will have to improve.
Why? Carlos Martinez really struggled against lefties after his promotion. Righties hit .246/.333/.328, while lefties unloaded with a .319/.373/.391 slash line. Again, it’s important to remember the small-sample size caveat, but the concern centers around more than just those slash lines. Check out the difference in platoon peripherals:
To me, the two-pitch mix combined with the massive differential in strikeout rates makes me concerned that the platoon splits would become even more pronounced as a starter, especially the second and third time through the batting order. And for how overpowering he can be, he hasn’t compiled elite strikeout rates in the minors since A-ball.
I understand he’s 22 years old and has time to develop his repertoire, but for the 2014 season, it doesn’t seem to be a slam dunk that he can transition to the starting rotation and subsequently dominate. The huge fastball and the huge ground-ball rate are both encouraging. I’m simply suggesting we need to pump the breaks on the Carlos Martinez bandwagon a bit.
The difference in fantasy value between the starting rotation and bullpen is also complicated. If Martinez doesn’t make the rotation and is the primary set-up man for the Cardinals until Jason Motte returns, it seems he’s a fringe top-30 reliever as a best-case scenario. In ESPN leagues last year, the top non-closer reliever was Luke Hochevar (yeah, that same Luke Hochevar) and he was the 26th-ranked reliever. Thus, in leagues that value saves only, Martinez isn’t anything more than a third reliever in deeper leagues.
If one sifts through the ESPN rankings for all pitchers, though, the picture becomes more complex. Hochevar was the 26th-ranked reliever, but the 77th-ranked pitcher. He ranked higher than Lance Lynn, Doug Fister, and Chris Archer. Guys like Tyler Clippard, Tommy Hunter, and David Robertson also cracked the top-100 overall pitchers in ESPN’s final rankings.
Thus, I don’t think the Carlos Martinez situation is merely contingent upon his role in 2014. He can still provide value as a reliever, whether your fantasy league values saves alone or saves and holds. For me, the more salient issue is whether his struggles against left-handers will continue in 2014. If they do, he may not offer the elite level of strikeouts one needs from a non-closing reliever, and in the rotation, he could get knocked around the second and third time through the order. It’s more about the level of success in general, rather than success in a specific role.
Dynasty and keeper leagues will likely value Carlos Martinez much more highly than redraft leagues, which is completely understandable and it should be that way. For the 2014 season, though, pay attention to the spring position battle. If he makes the starting rotation, don’t go overboard on draft day thinking his value just skyrocketed. He possesses definite upside, but he’s displayed significant issues against left-handed batters and will likely face an innings limit. Top prospects command a lot of attention and are often overvalued as a result. Carlos Martinez is a great arm and appears to have a bright future, but even 120 innings of Gerrit Cole posting a low-3.00s ERA last year only ranked as the #93 overall pitcher in ESPN leagues.
As a fantasy owner in non-keeper leagues this year, giving him the opportunity to dominate out of the bullpen sounds much better than potentially mediocre numbers with an innings limit in the starting rotation. Though neither option will make him any more than a late-round draft pick in deeper leagues.
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