SPRINGFIELD, Mo. Carlos Martinez nods his head, gives a thumbs-up to pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd and takes a few steps back. After a deep breath, he lofts a high looping throw from way out in the Hammons Field outfield.
It's a slow process for one of the Cardinals top pitching prospects, but one the organization is not taking lightly. Martinez, who entered the season ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the Cardinals system by Baseball America, has been out since complaining of shoulder pain following a between-starts throw on May 16.
The 20-year-old Martinez, who was moved from High-A Palm Beach to AA Springfield last week as he continues his rehab, reports no pain following the 10-minute long toss session. He threw a flat-ground session the following day and will advance to throwing a bullpen either Monday or Tuesday.
A simulated game is on tap in about a week and if all continues to go well, he could make his AA debut sometime in the middle of June. After signing out of the Dominican Republic for a reported 1.5 million, the Cardinals hope his current bout of shoulder tendinitis is merely a speed bump to an eventual productive big league career.
"Carlos is a valuable asset to this organization," says Springfield manager Mike Shildt. "We're going to make sure everybody is on board with what's going on.
"He's throwing free and easy and without any hesitancy now. We're taking it slow and just getting him back to where everything is working for him."
Martinez became one of the most talked about prospects in the Cardinals organization the moment he joined them. Compared by many to Pedro Martinez because of their similar deliveries, Martinez reaches AA barely a year since he debuted at Low-A Quad Cities last year.
But he wasn't at Quad Cities long. After posting a 2.33 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 38 23 innings over eight starts, the flame-throwing Martinez was promoted to Palm Beach.
The adjustment went slower than he would have liked as the right-hander went 3-3 with a 5.28 ERA in ten starts with Palm Beach to finish the year. He started there to open 2012 and was much better, recording a 3.00 ERA in seven starts before landing on the disabled list in mid-May.
Most knew his promotion to Springfield would come at some point during the summer. Not many expected it to happen while he was on the disabled list. But with Martinez out for a couple more weeks, the Cardinals saw a good opportunity to let him get adjusted to the new surroundings before he returns to game action.
And Martinez can't wait to get on the mound.
"I am feeling good, I just have to wait for the opportunity to pitch," Martinez says through translator and Springfield pitcher Richard Castillo. "I'm ready to get back out there. I was pitching really good before I got hurt.
"I'm working on the shoulder every day and doing the stuff I need to feel good. "
But the Cardinals are using his current break for more than just rest and rehab. Farm director John Vuch said the club is working on a mechanical change to his delivery that will allow him to be more consistent once he returns.
Martinez stepped up on the bullpen mound Friday and went through his delivery about ten times while mimicking a throw towards home plate without a ball.
"We're taking the down time to tweak a couple things," Vuch said. "We're doing work with him to stay consistent with repeating his delivery while maintaining his deception.
"He's making good progress with his throwing and is feeling good physically, so we anticipate him being back within the next couple of weeks. It's nothing serious."
Martinez possesses a fastball in the high-90's and a curveball rated by Baseball America as the best in the Cardinals system. At 6-foot, 165 pounds, he surprises first-time viewers with the way the ball jumps out of his hand.
It's yet to do much jumping in Springfield, but that may soon change. All involved are encouraged by how the prized prospect feels and his AA debut could come in the new few weeks.
Some project Martinez could be in the St. Louis starting rotation as early as the 2014 season. But until then, he'll continue to deal with the hype and expectations each time out.
"I feel happy to be a prospect for the Cardinals but I don't feel any pressure to do good for the fans or anything," Martinez said. "I just want to work more on my fastball and throwing it to the corners and keeping it down and not missing up.
"I feel happy to hopefully be back soon."
Said Shildt: "He's got electric stuff. It's going to be a process for him, being 20 years old at Double-A, but he has the ability that warrants him being here."
The rest of the Cardinals organization thinks so too.