Martinez has changed — for the better — in wake of Taveras’ death

This offseason, it feels like the fifth spot in the Cardinals' rotation will be Martinez's to lose.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — Appearing at the Cardinals Winter Warm-Up on Monday, Cardinals right-hander Carlos Martinez looked the same as last year. He appeared to be about the same size, he sounded the same in the interview room and his smile, which he flashed a couple of times, still included a hint of mischievousness.

But Martinez has changed. The tragic death of close friend Oscar Taveras has, for lack of a better term, helped him grow up. His manager, Mike Matheny, has stayed in close touch with Martinez since Taveras’ death on Oct. 26 and sees a difference.

"Through tragedy, he’s definitely growing," Matheny said.

"I’m taking it bit by bit," Martinez said via a translator. "I’m going to keep on living, keep on fighting."

Martinez says he has stayed in close touch with Taveras’ family in the Dominican Republic and plans on donning No. 18 — Taveras’ number — for more than just the upcoming season.

"He was a friend, a brother, and it’s an honor for me to be able to wear it," Martinez said. "I will wear it for the rest of my career."

Asked his first thought when he learned of the one-car wreck that killed Taveras and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Edilia Arvelo, the 23-year-old Martinez gave an answer that showed some maturity.

 "I thought about his son and how he left a son behind," Martinez said. "I thought how I wished I could have done something to be there to have helped him but it was too late."

A week after Matheny traveled to the Dominican Republic to attend Taveras’ funeral, the manager returned with a youth baseball team. On that trip, Matheny said he asked Martinez to speak to his group as well as a team of young Dominican players. The skipper was impressed with how Martinez handled himself.

MORE ON THE CARDINALS

"He even talked about some of the things that he’s done where he’s missed the mark and how he wants to fix that," Matheny said. "(He talked about) taking advantage of opportunities. All that is really where he is right now. It sank in. There’s no doubt about it. Does that translate into 20 wins? We don’t throw that on that kid."

Before looking for a 20-win season, the Cardinals need to find out if Martinez can be a big-league starter. No one questions his talent, but in his work out of the bullpen last year, his command was inconsistent and his numbers — 4.03 ERA in 57 appearances covering 89 1/3 innings — did not match up to his stuff. The key to his success, the Cardinals say, is improving his pitch efficiency in order to work deeper into games.

Based on five starts in the Dominican winter league, Martinez appears to be making strides. In five starts covering 24 innings, he posted a 2.25 ERA while striking out 26 and walking only two.

"It went well," Martinez said of his winter-league work. "I felt really good and am very hopeful that going there will help in spring training."

Martinez pitched well enough to earn a spot in the rotation last spring, but the Cardinals felt they needed him more out of the bullpen. This offseason, it feels more like the fifth spot will be Martinez’s to lose.

"I’m ready for the challenge," Martinez said. "I’m going to keep on working hard. They know what I can do.

Though Martinez used a translator during his interview, his English is improving. He chuckled at a question that included something about "walks" before it was translated into Spanish. He answered another question before it had been translated.


Martinez also showed that he could lighten the mood, too. When asked his reaction to Pedro Martinez making the Hall of Fame, he said he was glad to see a Dominican reach Cooperstown.

"I hope to be the next one," he said with a smile.

But maybe he wasn’t completely joking. He is pitching for more than himself now. He also is pitching to honor his close friend.

To Taveras, Martinez said he would dedicate "this year and every year."

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.