The Cardinals made a major investment in their future on Thursday, signing Carlos Martinez to a five-year deal. (Bill Greenblatt/UPI)

By Rob Rains

The Cardinals made a big investment in their future on Thursday, signing Carlos Martinez to a contract that will keep him in St. Louis through at least 2021 and perhaps 2023.

The deal is worth a guaranteed $51 million and could increase to $85.5 million if the Cardinals exercise the options for the last two seasons.

“It is something I have always dreamed of for myself, my family since I was a little boy,” Martinez said through a team interpreter. “Playing baseball has been my life, something I always wanted to do and I am thankful for this opportunity. … It was an opportunity that I couldn’t let go.”

The deal is the largest given to a pitcher entering his first year of arbitration. It buys out all three of his arbitration years and at least two seasons when he could have been a free agent.

“It’s a big commitment but one which we think is important to this organization and where we are trying to go,” said general manager John Mozeliak at the news conference announcing the contract. “Carlos had a lot of opportunities in front of him, he could have been patient and sought free agency in three years but his commitment to the Cardinals and the city of St. Louis was something that drove him to want to do this.

“A contract like this is really about making an investment in our future. We see him as an emerging star, someone who is going to be an elite performer for a long time.”

Martinez won 16 games last year in his second season as a full-time starter and Mozeliak and the Cardinals are expecting those numbers to only increase in the coming years.

“This type of contract is all about the future,” Mozeliak said. “When you have somebody at 25 years old who could hit free agency at 28 the leverage is far different than someone hitting free agency for the first time at 32. Carlos felt it was important to get something done now.

“For the Cardinals, when you look at our future and know Carlos Martinez can anchor this rotation for the next five years, that feels and sounds pretty good to me.”

Even though Martinez and the Cardinals had both filed for arbitration, with a hearing was scheduled for next Wednesday. Mozeliak continued to talk with Martinez’s agents in hopes of coming to terms on a longer contract. Those negotiations were completed on Monday.

“When I think about the timing of this, it came down to a very simple answer, it was now,” Mozeliak said. “He’s a special young man. He’s growing up, he’s maturing, he understands the commitment he’s making to the Cardinals and to St. Louis but also to his family.

“When we think about him we already talk about him being in that elite status of potential number one and a dominating type starter. There’s no reason to not think that is where it is headed.”

Where Martinez is headed, at least financially, is a long way from where he came from, in the Dominican Republic. Mozeliak has watched his development, on and off the field, since he signed with the organization in 2010.

“You have to undersand where he grew up and what he experienced to understanding the culture of the United States and here in St. Louis,” Mozeliak said. “He was always someone we wanted to have immerse himself here.

“Clearly he’s a talented player, we all get that. More importantly you want him to understand what this game is all about. He’s had great mentors; you think about Adam Wainwright and his influence on Carlos, and Yadier Molina, and his influence. These are critical things for him as he’s grown and continues to mature.

“I hope at some point I am saying that Carlos Martinez is a mentor to some young players coming in the future.”

Martinez admitted that is a role he would welcome and embrace – just as it would be for him to be the Cardinals’ number one starter.

Whether that happens this season or not is to be determined. Martinez gave a polite response on Thursday when asked if it should be him or Wainwright on the mound on April 2 when the defending world champion Cubs open the season at Busch Stadium.

Make no mistake, however. Martinez wants the ball. On that night, and for years to come.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains