Anyone else see Carlos Martinez take the hill for the Dominican Republic against Canada in the WBC?

I don’t know about you, but something about watching him pump 99s on the black tells me we might see an even better version of Carlos Martinez in 2017, and that’s something to get excited for.

Don’t get me wrong, Canada’s lineup last Thursday night wasn’t exactly a collection of hitters designed to strike fear into an opposing pitcher. Regardless, though, there were some extremely promising things on display in that game that remind you just how special a pitcher Carlos Martinez really is. Take this, for example:

It’s just another ho-hum 99 mph four-seamer on the black against a former MVP still in early March. Martinez, who some people forget is just 25 years old, cruised through four innings, letting up an unearned run with three strikeouts on 53 pitches in a 9-2 win for the Dominicans.

Sure, we can’t go around trumpeting Martinez as the next Nolan Ryan based off of one start in the World Baseball Classic. That’s not even close to the only evidence we have, though. At 24 years old last season, Martinez posted his second straight season with an ERA right around 3.00. In his second full season as a starter, his velocity on four-seamers increased from an average of 95.2 to 96.5 in 2016.

There’s no question that Martinez should greatly benefit from an improved defense behind him this season with Dexter Fowler patrolling center field and Jedd Gyorko likely avoiding significant playing time in the middle infield. Combine that with the fact that his line drive percentage continues to decrease from 21.6% in 2014 to 20.1% in 2015 all the way to 17.6% in 2016, and we should see Martinez allowing less solid contact hits to more capable defenders for better overall results.

It can be argued that no team would benefit from a young starter like Martinez taking a step forward than the Cardinals. Adam Wainwright’s concerning 2016 season casts a shadow of doubt on what he can be expected to contribute going forward, and Alex Reyes succumbing to Tommy John surgery early in spring training has put even more pressure on established guys like Martinez to pick up the slack. It’s unrealistic to expect Martinez to all of a sudden match Clayton Kershaw pitch for pitch, but he was already a top-20 pitcher by fWAR last season, with his 3.3 mark placing him amongst recognizable names like Kenta Maeda, Chris Archer, and Jake Arrieta.

Martinez set a career high with 195.1 innings last year, so expecting him to eclipse the 200-inning plateau for the first time isn’t unrealistic. Making a full season of 33 or 34 starts should help him reach that mark, and each inning on the mound for the Cards makes him that much more valuable to the team. It’s not only another inning with your ace on the mound, but it’s one less inning with a reliever in there. The relievers are less effective than your ace, and keeping them in the bullpen makes sure they’re fresh and ready to go in another situation.

Above all, in a season that began with such high hopes for another of our young guns (Reyes), it would put a smile on the faces of Cardinals fans everywhere to see one of their own, a guy who came up through our system, finally get the national recognition that we know he has deserved for years. If taking a step forward from an already-fantastic season last year doesn’t get the job done for that, then all that’s left to do is share a GIF like this on social media, because it’s just nasty.

Photo by © Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports