Cardinals’ Opening-Day Starter: Wainwright or Martinez? Matheny Has a Tough Decision

As Opening Days go, this one will be extra special, overloaded with prestige, history, rivalry and adrenaline. The Cubs vs. Cardinals, April 2, with a national TV audience watching on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.

Wainwright ranks second to Bob Gibson in Cardinals’ history in strikeouts.

The Cubs come into Busch Stadium as defending World Series champions. After winning 103 games last season and seizing the NL Central from the Cardinals, the Cubs would like to reaffirm their superiority.

The Cardinals, winners of only 86 games last year, would like to show that they’re a cleaner, more athletic, more harmonious and improved unit compared to the 2016 downers who had a losing record at home and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

Mike Matheny’s first decision: first-game starting pitcher.

Good luck with that one, Mike.

Barring injury or an unexpected setback, Matheny will choose between longtime rotation doyen Adam Wainwright and the abundantly talented Carlos Martinez. This isn’t just a choice centered on pitching prowess. Matheny’s selection will be heavy with symbolism and meaning. Matheny’s pick will also send a message to his own team, and to the outside baseball world.

Matheny can acknowledge, respect and reward Wainwright’s status as an admired veteran, team leader and one of the great pitchers in franchise history.

Or Matheny can go with his best starter, the much younger Martinez, and initiate the passing of a generational torch.

Wainwright, 35, ranks second to Bob Gibson in Cardinals’ history in strikeouts. He is fifth in games started. He’s sixth in ERA (3.17) and stands tied for sixth with 134 wins. Wainwright has played an enormous role in establishing his team’s winning tradition and culture. But Waino is also coming off his worst season as a starting pitcher, having been pummeled for a 4.62 ERA in 2016.

Martinez, 25, is one of MLB’s brightest young pitching stars. In his 60 starts over the past two seasons Martinez ranks 10th among 76 qualifying big-league starting pitchers with a 3.02 ERA, and is 17th in quality starts (40.) His ability to conquer with a high-90s four-seam fastball and a torpedo sinker has, over the past two seasons, resulted in MLB’s third-highest ground ball rate (57 percent) and 18th-highest strikeout total.

For the immensely proud and competitive Wainwright, the challenge in 2017 is to reverse last season’s trend. He desperately wants to slow — or halt — what appears to be the inevitable age-related decline. A presumably better STL defense should be able to give Wainwright a hand in 2017, but he’ll have to pitch with more sharpness and authority after flattening out in 2016. This won’t be easy, but I would never bet against Wainwright.

Martinez has the best stuff on the staff, and is highly capable of utter domination every time he takes the mound. Cardinals ownership and management signaled their belief in Martinez’ burgeoning ace status by giving the righthander a five-year contract extension worth $51 million. The scary thing is, Martinez can still improve. He hasn’t reached his ceiling. If he stays healthy and focused Martinez will have a chance to one day join Wainwright in the unofficial circle containing the best starting pitchers in franchise history.

Martinez was 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA in 2016.

It would be overstating things to say that Matheny faces a choice of Past vs. Future. That would be disrespectful to Wainwright, who isn’t filed away into history. He can still be a good starting pitcher. And while Martinez has tremendous upside, he’s not a prospect. The future is extremely promising, but Martinez has been exceptional in the here and the now.

Some of you would say Matheny’s opening-day assignment isn’t a big deal; after all this is just one game, the first of 162. OK, fine. But in baseball, the opening day assignment is an honor. It means a lot to pitchers. It’s usually a statement on how the manager, and the team, feel about the chosen pitcher. It’s a gesture of respect.

If Wainwright gets the start, here’s the message:

You are still our guy. Our leader. We’re not turning on you just because you had a difficult 2016. We still believe in you. Go make a great start and set the tone, the way you always have.” 

If Martinez is handed the ball on opening night, here’s the message:

“We’ve watched you grow and mature into one of the best starters in the game. You’re our No. 1 guy now. Our team is transition, and younger talent will go a long way in shaping 2017 and determining our future. This is your time. You are ready for the responsibility. Go lead us.” 

This isn’t a guilt-free choice for Matheny.

I don’t think he can make a wrong choice here. But Matheny, who prefers veterans, would reinforce that rep by choosing a “Mike’s Club” member over the more talented pitcher. That isn’t necessarily, fair but it’s reality.

If you are reading this you probably want an opinion from me.

I’d go with Martinez — it’s time. He’ll be a Cardinal for many seasons. He has a big heart. I think Carlos wants to be more than just a superb talent; I think he wants to be someone that teammates look up to. A leader in training. He’ll grow into that role over time. But Martinez would be honored by receiving the opening start. This would be especially meaningful to him. This isn’t just about giving him the ball. It’s about giving him the kind of respect that could begin the process of turning him into a leader.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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