Playing a position primarily reserved for run producers, first baseman Tino Martinez failed too often to deliver for the Cardinals.
On Nov. 21, 2003, the Cardinals dealt Martinez, a Tampa native, to the Rays for minor-league pitcher Evan Rust and a player to be named. (A month later, the Rays sent minor-league first baseman John-Paul Davis to the Cardinals, completing the trade.)
To sweeten the deal, the Cardinals agreed to pay most of Martinez’s $7.5 million salary for 2004, MLB.com reported.
By moving Martinez, the Cardinals were able to switch a more reliable run producer, Albert Pujols, from left field to first base in 2004.
The 2003 Cardinals, the only St. Louis team from 2000 through 2006 to miss qualifying for the National League playoffs, stranded 1,217 runners, three fewer than the Phillies, the league leader in that category.
Martinez shouldered a good deal of the blame for those missed opportunities. He batted .210 (29-for-138) with runners in scoring position in 2003. That was far below his career average of .278 with runners in scoring position.
Martinez, who turned 36 three weeks after the trade, also produced a paltry .429 slugging percentage in 2003. Only Sean Casey (.408) of the Reds and Robert Fick (.418) of the Braves had lower slugging percentages in 2003 among National League first basemen with at least 400 at-bats.
“I wasn’t happy with the way I played in St. Louis,” Martinez said to MLB.com. “I didn’t play up to my capability.”
Said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “I thought he competed, but he wasn’t as productive as he’s been.”
Martinez, who had driven in 105 runs or more five times in a season for the Yankees, had become a free agent and signed with the Cardinals in December 2001 as the replacement at first base for Mark McGwire, who retired.
In 2002, Martinez produced 25 doubles, 21 home runs and 75 RBI in 150 games for St. Louis, but he batted .246 (33-for-134) with runners in scoring position.
The next season, his home run and RBI totals dropped to 15 and 69 while his .210 batting average with runners in scoring position was far less than utility players such as Bo Hart (.274) and Kerry Robinson (.292).
In his two seasons with St. Louis, Martinez batted .267 with 36 home runs and 144 RBI. His .434 slugging percentage as a Cardinal was disappointing when compared with his career mark of .471.
“I don’t think we view Tino’s time here as a disaster or a mistake,” Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty told the Post-Dispatch. “… For some reason, he got a bad rap from people.”
La Russa touted Martinez as one of the team leaders, along with catcher Mike Matheny and pitcher Woody Williams, who held the players together in 2002 after the sudden death of teammate Darryl Kile. “It bothers me to see a stain on this guy,” La Russa said to Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch.
There were reports Martinez had become a disgruntled clubhouse presence in 2003 as his performance waned and the pressure increased.
Wrote Strauss: “Initially projected as protection for Pujols, Martinez became frustrated over his varied place in the batting order and decreased playing time against left-handed pitching.”
The Cardinals entered September 2003 in first place in the National League Central Division. They stumbled and finished in third. It didn’t go unnoticed that Martinez batted .217 (13-for-60) in September.
After the trade, Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell described Martinez’s attitude in the clubhouse as being like an “annoying pebble.”
Wrote Burwell: “And now that Martinez is gone, you have to wonder if he is the only pebble that was lodged in the Cardinals’ shoes. Does the absence of his negative presence mean that the clubhouse troubles are gone with him? Or does it mean that there are still a few more folks who need to go?”
With second baseman Fernando Vina departed for free agency, the Cardinals reportedly were looking to sign veterans Kenny Lofton to replace Pujols in left field and Roberto Alomar to replace Vina.
“One of the things we are trying to do is improve our table-setters at the top of the lineup,” La Russa said to MLB.com.
Instead, the Cardinals reacquired Ray Lankford to play left field and, late in spring training, signed Red Sox reject Tony Womack to play second base.
Those moves helped the Cardinals to a pennant-winning season in 2004.