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The Cardinals are in dire need of reliable starting pitching.

There doesn’t seem to be much help on the way. It seems unlikely that the Cardinals will sign Dallas Keuchel off the street. The only minor league starter that seems ready to help is Austin Gomber, and it’s hard to imagine him being a difference-maker. Alex Reyes is hurt again, and the question marks are stacking up against his reliability.

The only true answer to the Cardinals needs in the rotation is Carlos Martinez, who is scheduled to return to the St. Louis roster this weekend.

Martinez is going to act as a reliever at first. The Cardinals can’t afford to ease him back into action. If he’s going to the bullpen, he needs to be leaned on as the first man up in high-leverage situations.

Make no bones about it, when healthy, Martinez is one of the game’s elite pitchers. He’s as talented as they come. He must be put in the most pivotal situations.

Still, that won’t be enough. The Cardinals need Martinez to start, and it needs to happen sooner than later.

At only 27 years old, Martinez still has his entire prime ahead of him, so it’s understandable that the Cardinals may not want to risk another Martinez injury, but the time is now.

The 2019 version of the Cardinals is built to win. It has a chance to make a real splash this season, and Martinez is a key cog in its success. The Cardinals need him to get to a place where he can produce six or seven solid innings every fifth day.

My understanding of Martinez’s injury is that there has been an issue with his shoulder being able to fully recover after outings. Well, that doesn’t seem to bode well for regular bullpen use. If he can build his stamina up, even starting Martinez as part of a six-man rotation would help.

When he’s right, Martinez is the difference-maker that the Cardinals currently lack. His career ERA is 3.37, and that’s even slightly skewed by struggles in his first two seasons. He’s good for a strikeout per inning, which is the standard for a good strikeout pitcher.

While he can be a bit erratic, that’s the only thing keeping him from being ranked with the very top pitchers in baseball. The Cardinals will have to take the little bit of bad to get the overwhelming good.

Martinez may not be the savior for the entire season. He may end up as a bridge to better things. Maybe the Cardinals can swing a trade for a dominant starter. Madison Bumgarner jumps to mind. Yes, the Cardinals are on Bumgarner’s no-trade list, but that seems to be more so Bumgarner can have some control over his fate.

With Martinez returning, the Cardinals will be an improved team. How much they improve will depend on his health and how the Cardinals deploy their best weapon.

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JEFF WILSON can be reached at jeffreyewilson5@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwilson83.

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