We all know by now that the first major decision to be made in this massive offseason for the Red Sox is not theirs to make. Well, at least they’ve decided it’s not theirs to make. They could offer to restructure J.D. Martinez’ contract, but they aren’t going to do that. So, that leaves things in the hands of the slugger himself. After an all-time season in 2018 and a very, very good one in 2019, the first opt-out in his contract comes up this winter and he has until Monday to make his decision.
For most players with options, or teams with options on players’ contracts for that matter, there is a pretty clear consensus on what they are going to do. Every year, though, there are a couple of guys for whom it is something of a toss-up. Martinez falls into that camp, as analysts don’t seem to agree on which direction he’ll go and no reporter has reported in which direction he may be leaning. It may be that he’s not even leaning in one direction or another yet!
On the surface, it would seem to be a no-brainer for him to opt out. He is absurdly good at hitter, and even in what seemed like a down year for long stretches in 2019 he finished with a 139 wRC+. That made him the 16th best hitter in baseball, better than guys like Freddie Freeman, José Altuve and Mookie Betts. You don’t even need numbers to know. Just watch him for one game’s worth of plate appearances and you can see this is a dude who is just built to mash baseballs. Of course, baseball isn’t only hitting, and Martinez offers little value elsewhere. He can play corner outfield spots in a pinch, but if he’s playing there even on a semi-regular basis your run prevention is going to suffer. He’s also certainly not providing value on the bases. He does provide some hidden value in his ability to teach, though, something from which the Red Sox undeniably benefited from in 2018.
So, with all of that along with his age and the money he would be commanding if he does opt out — if he’s walking away from the three years and $62.5 million left on his deal he’s obviously looking for more than that with any new contract — the teams that are theoretical fits for him are smaller than his talent would normally indicate. Let’s go through the league and try to figure out which teams could be serious bidders. We’ll start by eliminating some classes of teams that likely do not make sense for one reason or another.
I’m eliminating the entire National League right off the bat. It’s not totally out of the question some team would try to hide him in left field, particularly if they think there is some momentum we have yet to hear about regarding an upcoming switch to a universal DH. (To be clear that’s just speculation not something that’s actually happened.) I just don’t see an obvious fit here.
Call them the tankers or the rebuilders or the just-not-very-good-ers, this group just doesn’t make sense for aging DH-only types, even with his mentorship potential. I’m extremely confident in the first three being out on Martinez. The Mariners confuse me a little more because Jerry DiPoto loves roster moves, but I don’t think Martinez really fits their MO.
These are the good teams who could probably find room for Martinez and improve but they just don’t spend the money in free agency for a move like this. It would be cool to see any of them prove me wrong but I just can’t see it. I will say that, as much as it pains me, there is a very small part of me that thinks the Rays could be lying in waiting if/when his market falls to a point they can afford. Fortunately, I can’t see Scott Boras and Martinez letting it get to that point, and if that’s a realistic possibility he just won’t opt out.
This was sort of a hard one, because there are a few other teams that could be there but I’m not quite so confident. The Twins could probably also be part of the previous group, but wherever you want to classify them they won’t be in on Martinez. Nelson Cruz is already an aging DH, so if they bring in Martinez it’s to play outfield. They also already have a full outfield, though flipping someone like Eddie Rosario wouldn’t be totally out of the question. Still, Martinez wouldn’t be the reason they do that. Houston is a little more interesting, but I don’t think they are going to put Yordan Alvarez back in the field on a full-time basis. Plus, there’s obviously a history between Martinez and the Astros. As for the Angels, they already have Shohei Ohtani and Albert Pujols as DH-types. They don’t need another one.
So, that’s 25 of the 30 teams that are probably going to be out on Martinez. That’s not a great market, but it’s not so small that it’s a slam dunk Martinez will opt out. It will ultimately come down to just how serious those other five teams would be.
We’ll start here, because the Red Sox are certainly still an option in theory if Martinez opts out. If he does indeed walk out the door, their best in-house option for DH would be Michael Chavis, and that’s if you want to play Marco Hernández at second and....Bobby Dalbec? Josh Ockimey? at first base. Obviously there’s more moves to be made, but they’ll have a hole in their lineup and would at least stay engaged in the negotiations. Of course, the other side of this is the self-imposed not-a-mandate mandate to get under the $208 million luxury tax threshold. That would make it hard to bring back Martinez, so this option depends how serious the Red Sox are about their payroll.
The Yankees were considered for the “position filled” category, but I can’t shake the feeling they are going to be involved here. Right now, they probably have Miguel Andújar as their DH, though if they bring back Brett Gardner or sign another outfielder they could move Giancarlo Stanton to that spot. Alternatively, they could see what the market for Andújar is and try to move him for a starting pitcher, saving a little money in that market and adding another bona fide star to their lineup. Probably not super likely, but it’s enough of a possibility that I’d consider them in the market.
The White Sox have long made the most sense to make a real run at Martinez should he opt out, with the biggest issue being that they’ve generally fit in the “Non-Spenders” category. José Abreu and his six-year, $68 million contract is the largest they’ve ever handed out to a free agent. Still, this is an up-and-coming team in a division that is there for the taking — the Twins are still good but their pitching could look very different in 2020 — with young hitters that are not only good but also could use a mentor. Chicago has loved Abreu because he has been another leadership-type in the middle of their lineup. If they’re finally willing to open the wallets a little, Martinez is an ideal fit.
I think Texas is a bit of a sleeper here, though I haven’t seen as much speculation on this front as I thought I might. I’m standing by it for now, though. The big sell here is that the Rangers are moving to a new stadium next year, and we always hear about teams wanting to make a splash in those situations to get people into the seats. They are also sort of an interesting team that stuck around longer than many expected in 2019. They’d probably rather spend money on pitching, but if they can find a way to get out of Shin-Soo Choo’s deal I could see Martinez slipping into that spot.
I always think the Blue Jays are going to be a bigger threat than they actually end up being, but eventually they have to spend. This is a team in one of the biggest markets in North America with a lineup that is just about ready to compete. Like the Rangers, the money is probably better spent on pitching but Martinez’ reputation as a teacher could be doubly intriguing for a team with Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, among other young hitters.
After all of this, I still really don’t have a good feel for what Martinez is going to do. The fact that we haven’t heard anything yet has me thinking he’s going to opt out, but I don’t even know if that’s logical or just my dumb brain overthinking things. If anything this exercise has probably made me a little less confident in that feeling, but this is still close to 50/50 for me. Either way, if he does opt out, there are some teams that would make sense, but there are drawbacks (good ones or not) for each of them making a real run.