Could José Martínez Earn a Spot on the St. Louis Cardinals’ Bench?

Feb 27, 2017; Fort Myers, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Jose Martinez (58) hits a 2-run home run during the second inning against the Boston Red Sox at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 27, 2017; Fort Myers, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Jose Martinez (58) hits a 2-run home run during the second inning against the Boston Red Sox at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Could Jose Martínez force his way onto the Cardinals’ bench this spring?

Coming into spring training, it sure looked like Tommy Pham had a huge head start when it came to winning the St. Louis Cardinals’ fourth outfield spot. Though John Mozeliak expressed interest in bringing a lefthanded-hitting veteran aboard in January, that plan hasn’t been delivered on.

Instead, the Cardinals chose to add outfield depth by signing José Adolis García, the reigning MVP of Serie Nacional (Cuba’s top professional league). Though he could contribute at the major-league level this season, he’ll likely begin the season in Double-A.

Outside the starting three, the only outfielders on the Cardinals’ camp roster with big-league experience are Pham, non-roster invitee Todd Cunningham, and 28-year-old José Martínez, who finally made his major-league debut last September after spending 11 years in the minors. Martínez looked like a guy who was almost surely headed to Triple-A entering the spring, but through the first week of games, he’s doing his best to change that.

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Through his first four games this spring, Martínez has been extremely impressive. In 10 plate appearances, Martínez has a .375/.500/1.125 slash line, having collected three hits (including two homers) and two walks. Obviously, that’s a ridiculously small sample size, but it goes along with what he’s been doing for the past two seasons.

Martínez was the Triple-A batting champ in 2015, hitting .384/.461/.563 in 396 plate appearances for the Omaha Storm Chasers, the Kansas City Royals’ affiliate. His production in Triple-A dropped off in 2016–not that anyone could have expected him to sustain that ridiculous level of success–as he batted .278/.336/.421 in 442 plate appearances, moving from the Royals to the Cardinals organization in late May.

Martínez looked like his 2015 Triple-A self in limited big-league action, though. After making his MLB debut with the Cardinals on September 6, he went 7-for-16 (.438) with two walks, finishing the season with an OPS of 1.000. He clearly made an impression on the manager, earning two late-season starts as the Cardinals were pushing for a playoff spot during the final weeks of the season.

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His ability to make consistent contact was particularly refreshing, as Pham went 3 for his last 30 to end the season. Overall, Pham had a solid 2016, hitting .226/.324/.440 with nine homers in 159 at-bats. But with so many other guys on the team having difficulty putting the ball in play (Brandon Moss, Randal Grichuk, Jeremy Hazelbaker, Jedd Gyorko, and Kolten Wong, to name a few), Pham’s solid power and on-base skills were basically redundant. The fact that he was prone to mental slip-ups in the outfield through the entirety of last season didn’t help matters.

Martínez has played 43 minor-league games in center field, but his massive frame clearly makes him more of a corner outfielder and first baseman. That might be the greatest reason that Pham, who’s a natural center fielder with the ability to play above-average defense at both corner positions, has the edge.

With that said, the Cardinals don’t really need a center fielder on the bench now that they have both Randal Grichuk, their primary starter in center last year, and Stephen Piscotty, who has 11 games of major-league experience at the position, available to back up Dexter Fowler if necessary.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Fowler, Grichuk, and Piscotty would all be unavailable without the Cardinals having the opportunity to summon a more natural center fielder from the minors, but if for some reason he was pressed into duty at that position, Martínez has shown the range to be at least competent in center:

In addition, Martínez has the ability to contribute as a righthanded-hitting first baseman. While Matt Carpenter isn’t a player who should be a part of a platoon, there’s a solid chance that he’ll have to shift over to another infield position this season if an injury occurs or someone among Kolten Wong, Jhonny Peralta, and Jedd Gyorko goes through a prolonged slump.

If that type of situation ends up unfolding, the Cardinals will probably want a platoon partner for Matt Adams, who has a .212/.243/.352 career slash line against lefthanded pitchers.

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Realistically, it’s going to take an absolutely dominant spring performance for Martínez to unseat Pham, because Pham’s success during the second half of 2015 obviously made a huge impression on the front office. It’s unlikely that Martínez will squeeze his way onto the roster as a fifth outfielder, either, because the Cards will almost surely keep Matt Adams, Greg Garcia, and Jedd Gyorko as backup infielders, with Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong possessing the ability to play the outfield in a pinch.

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If Pham continues to be as unremarkable he was during 2016, though, he shouldn’t have that long of a leash. Continued success from Martínez could definitely cause a shakeup in the bench’s composition sooner than later.