Kelly tabbed as fifth starter for Cardinals
Martinez to reprise 2013 postseason role as setup man in bullpen
JUPITER, Fla. -- When spring performance did not produce an obvious choice in the two-pitcher battle for a rotation spot, the Cardinals turned to what they saw in 2013 in order to finalize their decision.
That led the organization to name Joe Kelly its fifth starter and slide hard-throwing Carlos Martinez into the bullpen, where he will handle the eighth-inning setup duties as he did during the postseason.
While the Cardinals believe that Martinez will eventually have a sustained opportunity to start, his value in the back end of a bullpen -- which will be without Jason Motte to start the season -- was enough to tip the Cardinals to assign roles in this way.
"Our team is better because we have a known quantity as an eighth-inning guy and we have a known with how well Joe has pitched and how well he is throwing the ball right now," manager Mike Matheny said after Kelly took a no-hitter into the sixth inning on Sunday against the Astros. "It makes him an easy choice to be a starter. You could say the same thing for Carlos, that the way he pitched would make it an easy choice for him to be a starter. But with the position that we're in, I believe we're better with Carlos being in the back end."
Kelly will join a starting staff that includes Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha. The Cardinals have not yet announced the order of that rotation, aside from naming Wainwright the team's Opening Day starter.
The 22-year-old Martinez will now be the bridge to the 23-year-old Trevor Rosenthal, who has already been named the closer.
It's a position Martinez is familiar with. After a late-season shuffle of bullpen roles last year, Martinez found himself as the primary setup man to Rosenthal in October. He went on to record five postseason holds, the most by a rookie pitcher since the statistic began to be regularly kept, and was scored upon in just three of his 12 appearances.
As for Kelly, he returns to a rotation that he helped stabilize in a big way during the second half of last season. After losing the fifth-starter competition last spring to Miller, Kelly was called upon to join the rotation in July. As a starter, he went 9-3 with a 2.28 ERA.
"You can't deny what Joe did toward the end of last year," Matheny said. "You can't deny how good he has been this spring. But just watching Carlos and what he does and how he does it, I think everybody is impressed and a bit anxious to watch him every fifth day. But we do know that Joe has done a great job and is getting better.
"Watching how he used his changeup today, looking at the bite on his curveball today, then being able to tune it up and really let it eat at times with his fastball. I think there are better things ahead for Joe Kelly, too."
Kelly allowed two runs on two hits and four walks in five-plus innings on Sunday and finished Grapefruit League play with a 6.28 ERA. The results in his last two starts were much improved over his first two.
Both he and Martinez had left the Cardinals' complex by the time Matheny announced the role assignments, but asked about his role preference an hour earlier, Kelly responded: "Oh yeah, I love starting."
And of his spring: "I feel like I was getting better every start. I don't really look at that [competition] at all. I just worry about doing what I can do to pitch well. Whatever happens, happens."
Martinez actually posted the better spring numbers -- a 1.76 ERA in four starts and, at one point, a string of 14 straight scoreless innings -- but the Cardinals were never going to base this decision on Grapefruit League results. It was more the process -- and in this case, the past -- that would be weighed most heavily.
"I don't need to tell anybody in this room or anybody who has watched us at all that it has zero to do with anything that Carlos Martinez did not do," Matheny said. "He threw the ball exceptionally well. We're just in a spot where we have to figure out what will be best for our club and that's having him in the bullpen for now. Not saying that's going to be the end of where he'll always be. I believe he's eventually going to be a starter, and I believe he's going to be a very good one. But right now we need him to help our club out of the bullpen."
Also factoring into the decision is the innings limit that the Cardinals will have on Martinez. As was the case with Wacha a year ago, the Cardinals have to decide how best to disperse Martinez's workload so that he does not have to be shut down late in the season after reaching a certain innings threshold.
Matheny delivered the news to Martinez in Spanish and then through an interpreter to ensure that the organization's satisfaction with Martinez's spring was not lost in translation.
"I'm always concerned about how these guys take that kind of news after Carlos competed and did everything he can possibly do," Matheny said. "I know it's not easy, but I also know that Carlos is the kind of player who realizes what our club needs right now and realizes that he's going to have a great opportunity to help us win. Also, I made it very clear, we see him as a starter someday. We don't want him to believe that this is taking away from that opportunity for him to do that in the future."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.