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The Cardinals have reached one checkpoint in their offseason encouraged by the recovery of Carlos Martinez and where he is on the road back to the rotation, but the club continues to monitor the flow of free-agent traffic to make sure it doesn't get left behind if it accelerates.

Martinez, who spent some time before Thanksgiving in Jupiter, Fla., with team officials, has been cleared to begin his throwing program, a team official said Friday.

“He’s cleared for the next step,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations.

The Cardinals are still measuring theirs against the calendar.

On the eve of next week’s winter meetings in San Diego, the Cardinals remain interested in the free-agent pitching market. While hopeful that Martinez can reclaim his spot in the rotation, the Cardinals remain pragmatic about how soon they’ll be able to know. They realize their best chance to find some certainty for the pitching staff could come from outside the organization. The pitching talent available this winter has depth, and the time could be right to make a move before they have enough information on Martinez’s recovery to commit to him.

“Clearly when you look at the potential of what our rotation might look like, there are questions,” Mozeliak said Friday in an interview with The Post-Dispatch. “We need to keep the pulse of where Martinez is, where he is physically, and also what (the market) looks like. That’s a fair question to ask.”

From the outset of this offseason, the Cardinals have advertised a plan to look inward for their 2020 answers. They expect their offense to improve through the arrival of young outfielders and the return to form of some veterans. For pitching, they’ve taken parallel avenues. They are traveling along the rehab way with Martinez, but not ignoring the thoroughfare of free-agent talent. The marketplace is too saturated with starters at every price point to ignore, and the Cardinals have not. They’ve had conversations about at least two of the lefties available as free agents — Dallas Keuchel and Madison Bumgarner — and they’ve evaluated other options as well. They are not expected to wade into the deep waters for Gerrit Cole, the pitching prize of the market.

Even if they don’t engage on Stephen Strasburg’s pursuit, the market still offers the Cardinals such options as Keuchel, Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Aaron Sanchez, Wade Miley, and all the way to bounce-back or late-winter adds like Rick Porcello, Julio Teheran or Gio Gonzalez. The pool of pitchers is vast. The Cardinals' usual approach is to seek big value ahead of making a big splash.

But the current is starting to move.

Unlike last year when there were staring contests galore headed into the winter meetings, this year there are deals. Kyle Gibson finalized a deal with Texas that will reportedly pay him $28 million over three years. Zack Wheeler signed a five-year deal worth more than $110 million with Philadelphia. And lefty Cole Hamels agreed to a one-year deal with Atlanta for a reported $18 million. Those three signings already reveal the spectrum of options available — especially when it comes to the commitment of years. They could also hint at the kind of contract Bumgarner, 30, could command and where the Cardinals would be hesitant. He has interested them before as a trade target.

“The market is healthy,” Mozeliak said. “And it’s moving.”

In the opening week of December, the Cardinals have Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright inked into the rotation. The preference for the team is to have Martinez move from the closer role back to starting, where he was an All-Star as recently as 2017. In recent seasons, due to a series of shoulder injuries and weakness issues, Martinez was unable to handle or commit to a starter’s regimen. He has been steadfast with the team this winter that his goal is to return to starting, and his offseason workouts have been geared toward making that happen.

His agent said this past month that Martinez recovered well from a shoulder treatment earlier this offseason and that he intends to start.

Marcell Ozuna continues to draw interest from a handful of teams, some of whom have been described as more aggressive than the Cardinals. The Cardinals, per team policy, do not discuss specific free agents, though Mozeliak offered that “no door” has been closed in his conversations with Ozuna’s agent.

Much more about the Cardinals’ plan for pitching, their plan to improve their offense, and some of the things they’ll be shopping for — or even window-shopping for — at the winter meetings will be covered in Sunday’s Post-Dispatch and online at STLtoday.com in a Winter Meetings Primer.

And all next week, the Post-Dispatch will have two writers covering the Winter Meetings with daily chats, perpetual updates from the site of the meetings, and any breaking news. There will be constant coverage of the Cardinals online at STLtoday.com, and then deeper analysis, reporting, and opinion to follow in the morning newspaper.

-30-

Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

dgoold@post-dispatch.com

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