As the St. Louis Cardinals clinched a three-game sweep over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday, some good news came off the field with the announcement that righthanded pitcher Joe Kelly (as well as lefty Tyler Lyons) will ramp up his throwing program in St. Louis as the team heads on the road. Though Kelly hasn’t been able to throw off a mound yet, he says that his left hamstring continues to heal, and it sounds as if his return may come within the next few weeks.
If the remainder of the Cardinals’ pitching staff stays healthy up until the point that Kelly ultimately does return, it may cause some big changes in the Cards’ bullpen. Righthander Jason Motte returned from a 14-month absence earlier this week, and should assume the eighth inning role once he gets settled. That will push young righty Carlos Martinez down the totem pole, which quite frankly is deserved considering that he’s given up 10 hits and seven earned runs in 8.2 May innings after a solid start to the year which saw him put together a 1.17 WHIP while giving up five earned runs in his first 15.1 frames.
Since Jaime Garcia is now healthy and is holding a spot in the starting rotation, Kelly seems to be destined for the bullpen upon his return. He’ll be nice to have around as a long reliever, considering his extensive starting experience. With that said, Kelly could be an exciting late-inning option, too. He’s touched 98 MPH with his fastball this year and is averaging 94.8. That pitch would be an even more powerful weapon if he was getting limited exposure out of the ‘pen, especially considering that his breaking stuff is solid. Though Mike Matheny may avoid using him in those situations to keep him fresh as a long man, as he did too much when Kelly occupied a bullpen role at the beginning of 2013, the 25-year-old might be a more viable seventh inning option than any of the current options, who currently include Martinez, Seth Maness, and Kevin Siegrist.
If the Cardinals can slide Kelly into a late-inning role, it would then become sensible to send the 22-year-old Martinez back to Triple-A. After all, his long-term projection is still as a starter, and it would be wise to let him get some more experience learning how to be a true pitcher rather than just a thrower. Since reaching the majors, Martinez has relied very heavily on his fastball, which touches speeds of over 100 MPH, and he probably should continue to develop his off-speed pitches in order to be more effective down the road.
Besides that, he’s not going to be put in the best position to succeed if he’s only getting to pitch in occasional low-pressure situations. With as highly regarded as he is, Martinez needs to be getting consistent exposure, and that is only going to come if he is a prominent part of the bullpen in the majors or the rotation in Triple-A. If he’s still struggling when Kelly returns, or if necessary, even before then, it might be wise for the Cardinals to get Martinez some more starting experience in the minors. It doesn’t have to be for a really long time—though it was a different situation, the Cardinals showed earlier this year with second baseman Kolten Wong that they can give a young player a tune-up and then bring them back when they’re ready—but if Martinez isn’t going to be a big part of what they’re doing for the immediate future, they owe it to him to let him continue to develop.