We all go through transformations in our teens, though perhaps none quite as severe as Carlos Martinez. Signed by the Boston Red Sox in 2009, Martinez was known as Carlos Matias and was a shortstop prospect. When his identity was questioned, the deal was voided but he reinvented himself as a pitcher, showing enough potential that the St. Louis Cardinals signed him for over $1 million in 2010. His first attempt at full-season ball in 2011 was a success as the Cardinals let his talent dictate his pace and he earned a promotion to Hi-A Palm Beach.
2012 brought confirmation for both the believers and non-believers alike on Martinez, as he recorded a sparkling 2.93 ERA across Hi-A and Double-A over 104.1 IP, with 92 strikeouts against only 32 walks. For the non-believers there was shoulder tendinitis that cost him a month on the field and played into concerns on how his height and frame will hold up over a full season. Martinez was dominant at Hi-A, overpowering hitters with his plus-plus fastball, racking up a K/9 over 9 and limiting his BB/9 to under 3. Upon his promotion to Double-A (and return from injury) there was a significant drop off in Martinez's strikeout rate, but that was balanced but a massive bump in his GB/FB rate. There were reports that Martinez fell in love with his two-seam fastball, eschewing the pitch that put him on the map (four-seamer). While his control remained the same with a nearly identical walk rate, Martinez's increased usage of his two-seam fastball led to a jump in his GB/FB from 1.62 in Hi-A to an astonishing 3.92 in Double-A. If Martinez can generate anywhere near that many groundballs, his strikeout rate is practically inconsequential to his success. While the decline in K/9 as he has climbed up the minor league ladder is concerning, I think 2013 should tell us a lot. Martinez has more than enough stuff to miss bats, but can rely too heavily on his two-seamer. If the groundball rate reverts to something more normal (likely due to his height/different pitch selection), we should see a rise in strikeout rate as well.
While he loves his two-seam fastball, Martinez's bread and butter pitch is the four-seam fastball that sits in the upper 90s and can touch 100+MPH. As I mentioned in the St. Louis Cardinals Minor League Keeper Thoughts, Martinez's has two secondary pitches that both flash plus. He throws a curveball that arrives in the low 80s that can be a put-away pitch featuring two-plane break when it's on. His change up features nice fade when it's right, though he can overthrow it and flatten it out. He also needs to be mindful just how good his fastball is, as he can do hitters a favor by feeding them a pitch they have a chance at catching up to. Due to his height, Martinez can have issues with plane, though that is partially offset by his ability to pitch up in the zone without fear of hitters catching his blazing fastball. Martinez has also struggled with showing the ball to the hitter during his windup, though the Cardinals have worked to add deception to his delivery, and they have seen some improvement in that area. The big concern as far as investing in Martinez for fantasy purposes go is that he will end up as a reliever. In this respect, he's relatively high floor, as if he can't hold up physically as a starter, Martinez could be one of the top 3 relievers in baseball. He's got a #2 starter arsenal, and should see it tick up in relief stints. I'm optimistic that Martinez will be durable enough to be a #2 starter, but he's one of my favorite prospects because even falling short of that will leave him plenty valuable to the Cardinals and prospect owners alike.
With 14 starts under his belt at Double-A Springfield, Martinez might not be long for the level in 2013. A cup of coffee in the major leagues isn't out of the question for Martinez, though unfortunately for him he is on a team that is well-prepared to deal with depth issues without prematurely calling up one of their top prospects. That's better for his development curve than it is for fantasy owners, as Martinez could probably have some success based on stuff alone. I would expect around 1/3-1/2 of a season at Double-A with the rest in Triple-A. How he does there will affect his status going into the 2014 season. Given his ceiling and floor, Martinez is one of my favorite prospects and is a strong buy in my opinion. There's also a chance someone who owns him is concerned about his durability. If you can convince them to sell, you'll be glad you did.