Playing time is the most difficult element to quantify in player projections. Performance is a determinant, and the rates of that aspect are just approximations, far from guarantees. Although one can estimate the effects of things like injuries and managerial decisions on some players more easily than others, it’s virtually impossible to account for unexpected events.
The anticipation of changes in playing time based on in-depth looks into known circumstances can be extremely useful for in-season team management, then, especially in deep leagues.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ rotation has taken quite a hit this month. To no one’s surprise, the club had to place southpaw Jaime Garcia on the disabled list because he’s experiencing more shoulder problems. They also moved Michael Wacha to the 15-day DL because the soreness in the young right-hander’s pitching shoulder turned out to be what they called a “stress reaction.” At least they avoided disaster – for the time being – when they learned that the soreness in ace Adam Wainwright’s right elbow was a case of tendonitis. The team had already been shorthanded; Joe Kelly (severe hamstring strain) has been on the DL since mid-April; Tyler Lyons (shoulder strain) until recently, since mid-May.
The Cards needed the highly touted Carlos Martinez, who’d been operating out of the bullpen, to make a spot start on June 16 in place of the skipped Waino. Martinez obliged but could go only four frames against the New York Mets. He was on his way to stretched out, at least, just in time for him to take Wacha’s turn this past Sunday, on five days’ rest. He picked up his first W of 2014 by allowing three runs in five innings against the Philadelphia Phillies. So far, so good, as far as his team is concerned.
Fantasy owners don’t seem to be excited about Martinez’s opportunity, though. He’s owned in 39 percent of leagues at CBS; at Yahoo!, the number is 31 percent, and at ESPN, 4.7 percent. There appear to be good reasons, starting with his 4.33 ERA, hardly impressive for a pitcher who’s thrown 34 2/3 of his innings this season as a reliever and has a modest 7.5 K/9 in his time as a major leaguer. The way St. Louis has used the potential future ace has to have discouraged rotisserie gamers in the short term. How likely is he to remain in the rotation, making him worth their time? What are the numbers going to look like while he’s in the rotation?
Fantasy owners can’t be sure, in either case. The organization called on 2013 first-round pick Marco Gonzales to pitch in Garcia’s place on Wednesday. Kelly should rejoin the parent club sometime next month. Lyons is close to becoming an option again. Martinez has made three career major league starts and has delivered a whopping 13 2/3 stanzas, with seven earned runs allowed and eight walks against 10 strikeouts. The 142 left-handed batters he’s faced have batted only .236 against him but have walked in more plate appearances (12.7 percent) than they’ve struck out (11.3 percent).
Folks can take a wild guess, at a minimum, though. Garcia and Wacha are both out indefinitely. Wainwright’s scare reminds us that another of the club’s starters could go down in the meantime. Lyons, 26, provides the franchise with quality depth, but he’s likelier to supplant Gonzales, upon whom the club isn’t ready to rely, when necessary. Kelly and Lyons, both with lower ceilings, have experience in and could be options in the bullpen if and by the time the Cardinals reach a state much closer to full health.
That could all go to pot if Martinez doesn’t hold his own, naturally. He’ll need to neutralize left-handed hitters more frequently in order for that to happen. The opposition, particularly from the opposite side of the batter’s box, has been successful against his fastballs, which might seem strange because they’re far from straight and can hit triple digits. He relies heavily on the heat but has commanded it inconsistently, though, and his sinker is a work-in-progress. He’s rarely thrown his changeup at the big league level.
The Cardinals believe that his occasional struggles are mostly byproducts of inexperience and that he retires LHBs plenty often when he’s dialed in. Numbers indicate that there is something to those thoughts. Martinez has been dominant at times against hitters of either orientation. Early data suggests that he doesn’t need to dial it down in order to conserve bullets. That’s exciting, if not necessarily promising for the consistency of his command. As a starter who’s expected to go deeper into games, he may need to take something off and use the rest of his mix more often in order to get the most from his darting fastball.
We’ll find out whether all this holds true, in particular, how good Martinez’s heretofore promising changeup is, which he’ll need in order to keep left-handed hitters off-balance. His repertoire isn’t conducive to high strikeout totals, at least early in his career, but it’s so nasty that he can punch out a hitter when he needs to. He can maintain the pace he forged as a reliever. He’s also consistently suppressed big flies as a professional because he keeps the ball out of the air.
All in all, opposing batters haven’t hit him hard, so he’ll be successful as long as he makes more progress in the control department so that he becomes less predictable. This is how St. Louis has described its hope for Martinez on more than one occasion. It doesn’t hurt that he’ll continue to work with the league’s best catcher and a top-notch staff.
St. Louis manager Mike Matheny told the media the staff has been assuring Martinez that his opportunity in the rotation would come as long as he kept working hard. The occasion may have arrived sooner than they’d hoped, but a need has arisen. There’ll be ups and downs, surely, because he’s not quite the finished product the Cards envisioned he’d be by the time they made this choice.
But Martinez has an arsenal that will allow him to do more than survive and has demonstrated growth in a relatively short period. Fantasy owners in leagues that aren’t shallow shouldn’t leave a player of his caliber in their league’s free-agent pool, at least for as long as his chance lasts. It could turn out to be for the rest of the season.
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