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An overview of the battle for the Cardinals fifth starter spot

Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez has more upside than Joe Kelly, but less experience.
Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez has more upside than Joe Kelly, but less experience.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Yesterday Carlos Martinez once again made his case for the St. Louis Cardinals fifth starter spot with a 5 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 4 K box score line. With his performance, Martinez lowered his spring ERA to 1.76. Yesterday the club also announced that they were optioning lefthander Tyler Lyons to minor league camp. Realistically, that leaves Martinez and Joe Kelly as the two candidates for the fifth starter spot. Here is the case for and against each man.

Joe Kelly

The positive for Kelly is first his experience. In 2012 Kelly started 16 games and in 2013 Kelly started 15 games. Both years Kelly performed admirably. Last year Kelly was particularly impressive, compiling a 9-3 record with a 2.28 ERA.

In addition, many of Kelly’s games were in the middle of the pennant races of 2012 and 2013, which shows that Kelly is able to handle pressure situations well.

Kelly’s sinker plays well, as evidences by his 51 percent groundball percentage in 2011 and 2012.

On the negative side Kelly is not known to go deep into games. Of the 15 games Kelly started last year he went over 6 IP in just two of those starts.

Kelly has a relatively high walk rate of over three walks per nine innings pitched. While Kelly’s ERA has been excellent, his xFIP for 2012 and 2013 was over 4.00, suggesting that some of his success may have been from luck, and that Kelly is due for regression over time. Despite having excellent velocity, Kelly’s strikeout rate is a relatively pedestrian 6K/9IP.

When it comes to stuff Kelly’s fastball is excellent, sitting at about 95 MPH and at times nearing 100 MPH. However, Kelly has lacked a quality secondary offering, which may explain why hitters tend to “figure out” Kelly after two or three at-bats. This spring Kelly has been working on a new curverball offering, but he has not had much success with a 7.71 ERA over 9 IP. Kelly’s last performance was much more positive, throwing 5.1 innings and surrendering just one run on four hits and striking out three.

Carlos Martinez

In contrast to Kelly, Martinez has much less proven experience, but also a lot more upside. Martinez has only made one Major League start, giving up four earning runs over 4.2 IP. However, Martinez did gain significant experience in high pressure situations as the setup man for closer Trevor Rosenthal at the end of 2013, including the playoffs.

Martinez had a 5.08 ERA over the regular season last year, but as a mirror image of Kelly his 3.83 xFIP suggests that Martinez performed better than his ERA.

Like Kelly, Martinez produces groundballs at a rate of better than 50 percent. Martinez struck out hitters at better rate than Kelly, 7.62 K/9 IP. Like Kelly, Martinez struggled with control to some degree, walking 2.86 batters per 9 innings pitched.

What really separates Kelly and Martinez is their stuff. Martinez has Kelly’s velocity, but with even more movement making it hard for hitters to make solid contact. Martinez also features a changeup. slider, and curveball. Martinez secondary offerings can make hitters look silly at times, as he did with Dustin Pedroia in Game 2 of the 2013 World Series.

As mentioned earlier, Martinez has had a dominant Spring Training in 2014.

Conclusion

In deciding between Martinez and Kelly the Cardinals are really debating between experience and upside. Martinez undoubtedly offers more potential and is likely to be the better pitcher over the life of his career. Kelly, in contrast, provides more certainty and experience. Deciding between the two is a good problem that most Major League teams would gladly have right now. Whoever “loses” the competition for the fifth starter spot will probably be used as the seventh or eighth inning reliever.