The grass isn’t always greener on the other side

The Cardinals’ Carlos Martinez and the Mets’ Noah Syndergaard (Redbird Dugout illustration)

The MLB offseason, often called the “hot stove” (though at this point the stove may only be set to simmer), is generally the time of greatest hope for a team and its fans. Teams are exploring all the options to achieve their goals and fans are excited because anything could happen, waiting eagerly for news about how their team is going to get better. Discussion of what could be dominates baseball talk from trade polls to just throwing ideas against the wall to the national media connecting dots, conjecture is the name of the game each winter.

And as it so happens, discussing one of those conjectures is where we find ourselves today. Last week it was reported that the New York Mets are exploring the trade of starting pitcher Noah Syndergaard to gauge interest and potential return. According to those same reports, the Mets are looking for MLB ready players rather than prospects. So reading these reports, I threw something against the wall to see how it stuck.

Okay, it doesn’t really stick, but I was curious to see the general reaction. I was actually a little surprised by the results. Overwhelmingly the responses decided that the Mets would be the ones to say no to that trade. After thinking about it a bit, I’m actually baffled by that opinion.

Martinez and Syndergaard have performed very similarly in their careers and Martinez clearly has the more valuable contract situation. Throw in two more players on top of that and I think it’s a classic example of undervaluing your own lawn because your neighbor’s looks nice. I think that’s how the saying goes anyway.

Much of the undervaluing, or should I say devaluing, of Martinez is courtesy of some general fan opinion of him. He’s “immature,” he’s “overemotional,” he’s “unreliable,” he “does crazy things with his hair,” or whatever the flavor of the moment complaint is about him that people pull for reasons he may never reach his potential. The reporting late in 2018 about a lack of punctuality and preparedness simply added to it. But those are really just opinions on Martinez, not of his value as a player. That comes down to two basic things: performance and contract.

Performance-wise, Martinez and Syndergaard are two of the finest young pitchers in baseball at this point and match up pretty closely. Since 2015, the year both became full time starting pitchers, Syndergaard does have a slight edge.

  • Syndergaard, 26 years old
    2.93 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 132 ERA+, 81 OPS+, 2.0 BB/9, 9.9 K/9

So Syndergaard walks fewer and strikes out more, which does give him a sizeable advantage in independent fielding metrics, which is why I didn’t use them. Fielding independent metrics favor one specific style of pitcher and, well, Syndergaard might as well be the model for that style of pitcher.

But bottom line is that these guys are just really close on the field. Their differences in ERA and WHIP translate to just 6 runs and 26 more base runners over 200 innings, roughly a season’s worth of innings.

However, something Martinez has clearly done better than Syndergaard is the unspoken sixth tool: staying healthy. Martinez has thrown 180 1/3 innings more than Syndergaard since the start of the 2015 season, basically an extra season. That has significant value as you consider who you can depend on handing the ball to every fifth day.

The biggest advantage for Martinez, however, may be contract situation. Years of team control is one of the most important parts of determining trade value, especially when those years include the team friendly control years.

Syndergaard is a “Super Two” player, meaning he hit arbitration a year early and will have four arbitration years instead of the standard three. This means that he has three years of arbitration remaining and will be a free agent following the 2021 season.

Martinez has three years remaining under his current deal at a cost of $36.1 million and then a $16.5 million option for 2022 and a $17.5 million option for 2023. That’s up to five remaining years of team control. Arguably the youngest member of the top-15 starting pitchers in baseball on a 5 year, $70.1 million deal. Every team would be lining up around the block if he was a free agent looking for that deal.

Those two extra years of control beyond Syndergaard and the cost certainty, tilt the value scale significantly towards Martinez and, because of that, should command the larger return in a trade.

So then throw in a player in Jose Martinez who has hit over .300 in each of the past two seasons in the big leagues and the second best catching prospect in baseball in Carson Kelly on top of that and really the Cardinals are the team that should be saying no, because this trade makes them significantly worse.

The Mets, on the other hand, should take that trade and then flip Carlos for even more than they would have gotten for Syndergaard.

The general response indicates just how much Martinez is undervalued by Cardinals’ fans. I’m sure the process of undervaluing your own team’s players while overvaluing another’s is a problem with every fan base. I think this is because you watch and dissect all your own team’s games, so you see all their shortcomings, but watch other teams’ highlights.

In my opinion, if Carlos Martinez can put up the number that make him one of the top-15 starting pitchers in baseball over the past four years while dealing with complaints about his maturity, dedication, and preparedness, just imagine what he’d do if he applied himself.

This past year when he went down with his lat strain, Martinez had made eight starts and posted a 1.62 ERA. That was more than half of his previous career low through eight starts. It was by far his best start to a season and he was a quarter of the way through it. In his first year with Mike Maddux as his pitching coach was that a glimpse of what was to come when healthy? Can he do it again?

So consider whether you’d rather Martinez figure it out for the Cardinals or against them. I know what I’d choose.

Jon Doble has been writing about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2010. You can also find him on Twitter at @GroundRuleDoble. Thank you for reading.

Originally published at on November 26, 2018.

Retired-ish blogger. I’ve written about the Cardinals and baseball since 2010. World record holder for most hitless at-bats in an inning.