Grieving Martinez ready to compete for Cardinals

Righty will wear No. 18 in honor of his late teammate Taveras

Grieving Martinez ready to compete for Cardinals

ST. LOUIS -- Returning to St. Louis for the first time since his close friend and teammate Oscar Taveras was killed in a car accident in October, Cardinals starter Carlos Martinez presented himself ready to compete for a rotation spot but also still healing from his loss.

Martinez used the Spanish word "luchar" -- best translated as "to fight" or "to struggle" -- to describe his emotions over the last two-plus months, and spoke of his intention to dedicate "this year and every year to Oscar."

One way he'll do so will be by wearing Taveras' No. 18.

"I spoke to [general manager] John Mozeliak, and I'm thankful they've given me the opportunity to wear it," Martinez said. "[Taveras] was a friend, a brother, and it's an honor for me to be able to wear it. I'll wear it for the rest of my career."

Through the grieving process, Martinez said he welcomed the distraction of playing winter ball in his home country of the Dominican Republic. He started five games, winning three of them and posting a 2.25 ERA over 24 innings. Martinez struck out 26 and walked two.

He made his final winter ball appearance on Jan. 15, and will relocate to the Cardinals' complex in Jupiter, Fla., next week to finish his offseason throwing program. Martinez's winter ball participation a year ago put him ahead early in spring, and that translated into strong Grapefruit League numbers.

It didn't win Martinez a starting job (that went to Joe Kelly), but this year Martinez enters as the front-runner for the rotation's fifth spot.

"I feel mentally, emotionally really good that I've had that chance to work real hard there and bring that to Spring Training," Martinez said. "I feel like, yes, this is my spot. I feel like I'm the pitcher I'm meant to be, and I have experience now. I'll be ready."

Manager Mike Matheny has remained in regular contact with Martinez this offseason via text and phone calls. He also twice visited with him in person, once when he traveled to the Dominican Republic for Taveras' funeral and again a few weeks later as he accompanied a youth team to the country.

"I'm just so proud and impressed with how he was walking through it," Matheny said. "There's a tie and a friendship really deeper than most of us understood. ... To hear him say this is something he's going to [use to] push forward, the two of them, in his heart and in his mind, are doing this. I would say that's absolutely true."

Martinez has also continued to converse with Hall of Fame countryman Pedro Martinez, who has been helping the young right-hander refine his changeup and curveball. Asked about Pedro Martinez's recent election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Martinez gleamed.

"I'm happy that there is [another Dominican] in the Hall of Fame," he began, "and I hope to be the next one."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.