Is Cardinals' Carlos Martinez ready to deal like an ace?

ST. LOUIS -- The staff of the St. Louis Cardinals' magazine put together a fun video this spring of Carlos Martinez and Adam Wainwright driving around in Florida and singing along to each other's choice in music. It had some genuinely funny moments and even a couple of touching ones.

Wainwright dives in enthusiastically to Martinez's chosen track, "Otra Vez" (Again), by the Puerto Rican reggaeton group Zion & Lennox.

"Let's do your musica one more time. I think I've got it," Wainwright says. "Otra vez means another time, right?"

Then the music starts and Wainwright says, "OK, I don't have it. Maybe I'll just bailar."

He ticks off every Spanish word he has ever learned, including the words for beach, library and bread, none of which are mentioned in the song, then closes his eyes and just dances. Earlier, Martinez had done his best to croon enthusiastically to the Joe Nichols country song "Yeah."

"My man Carlos Martinez, multicultural," Wainwright says.

The Cardinals are hopeful, if not desperate, that Martinez masters one more language this season and that Wainwright can help as a cultural guide. For the first time since 2012, Wainwright won't be the Cardinals' Opening Day starter. They gave that honor to Martinez, who will pitch Sunday night on ESPN against the world champion Chicago Cubs. For a generation of Cardinals baseball, when Wainwright was healthy, he served as the team's ace. But based on last season's results, the choice this season was easy.

That doesn't mean transforming into a true No. 1 will be easy for Martinez, who led the Cardinals in wins (16), ERA (3.04), strikeouts (174) and WHIP (1.224) in 2016.

"When we talk about an ace, it's more than a guy with the best stuff who's going to end up highest on the Cy Young voting," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "There's more to it than that. That's why it's unquestionable in our clubhouse that Adam Wainwright is our ace, how he leads our team. There's a huge responsibility with that. That comes with time. That comes with success and failure and championships.

"What Adam brings to this club cant be measured, but Carlos has taken great steps in the right direction of wanting some of that leadership responsibility. Part of it's going to be how he handles the contract, how he handles success, how he handles Opening Days, and how he's consistently going about his business. In the meanwhile, he's taken great strides as far as his development on the mound, and the rest of it's coming around too. It just takes time."

And Martinez now has it, at least five years' worth. Getting the Opening Day nod was nice, but the Cardinals showed their true commitment seven weeks earlier. In early February, they signed Martinez to a five-year, $51 million contract that, if they pick up the final two option years for a total of $35 million, could keep him in a Cardinals uniform through 2023.

The Cardinals are hoping he will be everything Wainwright was from 2008 to '14. Martinez will be the face of Cardinals pitching, which tends to be the face of Cardinals winning.

At first glance, it's a sizable investment for a player entering his first year of arbitration, but it would prove to be a massive bargain if Martinez stays relatively healthy and simply repeats what he has done the past two seasons. In 2015 and 2016 combined, he was 30-16 with a 3.02 ERA.

It certainly wouldn't be an overpay for a strong No. 2 starter, but that's not what the Cardinals had in mind.

"When you sign a pre-arb or arb-eligible player to a long-term deal, you're hoping to capture some of the upside of having the deal already done," general manager John Mozeliak said. "Now, were we hoping for more from Carlos Martinez? The answer is yes. From a talent standpoint, it's easy to imagine him being someone who, at some point in his career, does get Cy Young votes."

Wainwright sees a similarly bright future for Martinez, 25.

"We haven't even seen what he's capable of yet," he said. "I think last year was the start of the beginning of what he could do. But I mean, does anybody think he's capped out at a 3-something ERA and 16 wins? I think he can do a lot better, a lot more, and I think he will do a lot better and a lot more. He's doing everything he needs to do that."

For Martinez to satisfy baseball analysts that he has emerged as a true No. 1, he'll need to eclipse the 200-inning threshold for the first time in his career and, perhaps, bump up his strikeout totals. He was tied for 27th in the majors in strikeouts last season, meaning he is more reliant on his defense than most pitchers who are considered legitimate No. 1s. Every team technically has a No. 1 starter -- they have to line them up somehow -- but a lot of baseball people say there are about 12-18 true aces in the game at any given time.

One of the reasons Martinez hasn't piled up as many strikeouts as his 100 mph fastball and wipeout secondary pitches could accumulate is that the team asks him not to worry about them. The Cardinals feel he is better off working to get early contact at this stage of his career. Perhaps he will be a true No. 1 when he realizes how to get consistent double-digit strikeout games while still pitching deep, a la Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. Wainwright says he thinks that is Martinez's trajectory, and in the meantime he has come a long way in learning his craft. When the Red Sox signed Martinez as an international free agent, he was a shortstop. He soon switched to pitcher, but has been a starting pitcher for only two full seasons.

"He's good at letting the hitter tell him what he needs to do," Wainwright said. "He's a sneaky-good pitcher. He has this great stuff, but I think he really knows what he's doing out there on the mound."

Martinez said he learned he would be the Cardinals' Opening Day starter from an uncle in the Dominican Republic, who read it on Twitter. Now that he has crossed off another career landmark, he figures following Wainwright's footsteps will be his best way to accept his role.

"It's simply about respecting the team, especially when our morale is down, to do your part to lift everybody up," Martinez said through an interpreter. "I learned a lot from Adam about how to carry yourself as a professional, as a leader, and still have the mentality to go out and compete, knowing you're responsible to your teammates around you."

Martinez pitched brilliantly in the World Baseball Classic in his first opportunity to represent his native Dominican Republic, providing the Cardinals with yet more information that he is ready for this newfound responsibility. He said the swirl of emotion and adrenaline around the event made him feel as if he were pitching in Game 7 of the World Series.

"Carlos is a big, high-energy guy. We saw him in the WBC, we've seen in the playoffs and other big games. That's when he's at his best a lot of times," Wainwright said.

If things go as planned, Martinez will have one very high-profile game Sunday, followed by about 25 or so slightly lower-profile games, and then a string of practically do-or-die games as the Cardinals fight to reach their first World Series in six years. After committing a lot of dollars to him, they have high hopes he'll handle the task well.

"Honestly, the best thing I can do is just keep doing what I've been doing and follow in Wainwright's footsteps," Martinez said.