It’s no secret that the Yankees’ starting rotation could use some help. After Luis Severino and CC Sabathia, there’s not much going for the staff. Sonny Gray has been an enigma, Masahiro Tanaka has been inconsistent when healthy, Domingo German is a talented yet unproven rookie, and Jordan Montgomery is out for the season. Others like Jonathan Loaisiga and Luis Cessa have been used as well, but are unlikely to make a big impact this year. Hence the rumors about Jacob deGrom and Madison Bumgarner at the top of the line and JA Happ, and Cole Hamels a few tiers down. There are certainly other names out there that we have and have not heard about on the rumor mill, but there’s one pitcher I’d like to put into the mix that’s not been rumored whatsoever: Carlos Martinez.
St. Louis is in a bit of a predicament at 48-46 at the time of this writing, which is seven and a half games behind the first place Cubs and five games back of the second place Brewers in the central division. They trail the second Wild Card spot (Atlanta) by four games. With that in mind, Fangraphs has them at a 24.1% chance of making the playoffs, which certainly isn’t terrible, but they’re also 18-24 since June 1 and have had plenty of off-field acrimony to go with it. From whatever was going on between Bud Norris and Jordan Hicks, John Mozeliak’s public criticism of and subsequent mea culpa to Dexter Fowler, to manager Mike Matheny getting the pink slip, things aren’t going well in St. Louis. Given the young talent that Chicago and Milwaukee boast, one could make an argument that now might be a good time for the Cardinals to rebuild. Martinez might be the most attractive trade chip they have, and we very well know that the Yankees have the prospect chips to acquire a player of his caliber. The problem? The same incentives that make Martinez the Cardinals’ best choice to facilitate a rebuild are also compelling reasons to keep him.
Last year, Martinez signed a $51 million extension through 2021 with team options for 2022 and 2023 at $17 and $18 million apiece, which is a very team friendly deal. At just 26 years old, it’s not hard to envision the Cardinals being a contender again while Martinez is still a useful arm. Yet, this is precisely the type of pitcher the Yankees have pursued via trade in recent years: young, talented, and controllable (see: Sonny Gray, Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Pineda, etc).
Let’s talk about Martinez the pitcher for a moment. Depending on the WAR metric of your preference, he’s been a three to five win starter since he joined St. Louis’s rotation full-time in 2015, which would slide him into the front of the Yankees’ rotation behind Luis Severino. Martinez’s skillset checks nearly all of the boxes that the Yankees seem to covet: hard-throwing (though his velocity is down 1 MPH this year), misses bats (23.1 percent strikeout rate for his career), keeps the ball in the yard (well below 1.0 HR/9 IP except for last year), and generates plenty of grounders (53.0 percent for his career).
The downside is that he does walk his fair share of batters, especially this season. Historically, he’s hovered around a mediocre eight to nine percent range. This year, it’s even worse, all the way up to 11.9 percent. That probably explains his career-worst 5.14 DRA, a metric that has been consistently in the low threes or better throughout his career. One other concern is his health: he spent most of May on the disabled list with a lat strain. Fortunately, he’s returned just fine, but it’s something to keep on eye on.
With all this in mind, Martinez wouldn’t come cheap. A trade for him probably wouldn’t be all that much different than a swap for someone like deGrom. St. Louis would be justified in asking for Gleyber Torres or Miguel Andujar, though it’s certain the Yankees wouldn’t budge on the former. It seems like they would entertain a deal headlined by Andujar, especially with Brandon Drury in tow and the potential to acquire Manny Machado via trade or free agency. Would Andujar, Clint Frazier, and another mid-level prospect or two satisfy the Cardinals? Matt Carpenter isn’t going to be around forever and can also play first base, so Andujar could take his place. Meanwhile, the Cardinals outfield has been a major disappointment, so Frazier could be part of the solution there. The other two minor leaguers would help sweeten the package.
Dealing Frazier is a bit easier to stomach given the logjam of outfielders that Yankees currently possess, but trading Andujar would be a tad painful. Though he has his flaws, Andujar has been fun to watch. Yet, the Yankees have a viable option to replace him in Drury and clearly are salivating at the idea of Machado in the near future. For an opportunity to bolster a rotation in need, making Frazier and Andujar the headliners for Martinez makes some sense. The bigger question is: are the Cardinals ready to rebuild?
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