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The curious case of the J.D. Martinez trade market

Should teams be as hesitant as they seem to be?

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

It may not really feel like it, but we are right in the thick of trade season. As I write this, we are just barely over four days away from the trade deadline, which in a normal year would mean the rumors should be coming fast and furious. That hasn’t really been the case so far. With it still being a few days away we can avoid reading too much into the league-wide rumors, but I think it is at least worth noting. We all know this is not a normal year, and it stands to reason this is not going to be a normal deadline, either. For a variety of reasons, many of which we’ve covered here for the last few days, weeks, and really even months, there are plenty of reasons for teams to be more conservative at this year’s deadline.

For the Red Sox specifically, that’s not ideal as they find themselves in a position that would normally be great to claim some future value. They are one of the few clear sellers in the league, which theoretically could be a huge boost for the farm. It’s not just the potentially quiet market holding them back, though. They also don’t really have a whole lot of value that can be dealt right now without getting silly and trading away core pieces moving forward. Those kinds of deals are still possible, but they certainly seem unlikely at this point.

For the most part, the players that are most likely to be dealt by the Red Sox over the next few days are better qualified as depth pieces rather than stars. That is not to discount the value they currently bring to the team nor the value they could potentially bring to an organization trying to win a World Series, but they simply won’t bring back the type of package that could provide an instant impact to the farm system. The one player that could potentially do that who makes some sense to trade is J.D. Martinez.

To be entirely clear, the Red Sox do not have to trade Martinez in the same way, for example, it felt like they had to trade Brandon Workman. Martinez is not definitely a free agent after the season — more on that later — and can provide value to this Red Sox team moving forward as they presumably aim for a quick turnaround and not a long rebuild. On the other hand, he is obviously on the wrong side of 30, could be a free agent after the season and could be at peak value right now, despite poor performance so far this season.

Philadelphia Phillies v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

As it became clear that Boston was not going to contend for a playoff spot and things shifted to looking at what they could sell at the deadline, it was my assumption that Martinez was the most obvious trade candidate on the roster. Well, you know what they say about assuming. To this point, there has been very little speculation that he could be dealt, much less hard rumors about talks. While I remain surprised by this, I do acknowledge that this is a very complicated case to maneuver, and the more I think about it the less sure I am as to what I would do if I were a buying team looking for offense. So, I wanted to look at the questions that hang over the Martinez trade market and see if talking through them clear anything up. Indulge me, if you will.

1. Performance

First and foremost, before we can get into any of the financial or rule-related issues that make this particularly complicated, we have to start with the simple fact that Martinez just hasn’t been good this year. We’re only talking about 124 plate appearances, but in them he is hitting .213/.306/.380 on the year for an 82 wRC+. That is almost 60 points worse by wRC+ than his mark last season. The good news if you’re a team looking to trade for Martinez is that his plate discipline remains consistent with his previous couple of seasons with the Red Sox in terms of strikeouts and walks.

The bad news is the quality of contact simply isn’t there. According to Baseball Savant, his hard-hit rate is down to 36.6 percent compared to 48 percent last year. This is the first time since 2015 Martinez isn’t in the top 10 percent of baseball in hard-hit rate. The biggest issue is that he is getting under a whole lot of baseballs, leading to more lazy fly balls rather than solid ones that either leave the yard or hustle past fielders for extra bases. He’s also having a ton of trouble against fastballs, with a swinging strike rate that jumped from 19.4 percent to 23 percent, a wOBA that decreased from .404 to .285 and an expected wOBA that fell from .446 to .373.

A lot has been made about Martinez being so reliant in the past on looking at video between every at bat, an option which is not available to him this season. I’m sure that’s an issue, but I also wonder how much playing on a bad team is affecting him along with small sample noise. I tend to look at that expected wOBA against the fastball and see quite a bit of bad luck, and I think his track record is long enough and this sample is small enough that I still very much believe in the talent. But this performance so far in 2020 certainly will rightfully give plenty of teams pause.

2. Contract

There are two angles at which we can view the contract part of any Martinez deal. We have to start, I think, with his ability to opt out after the season. Teams aren’t really sure whether or not they are trading for a rental, and obviously trading for one month of Martinez versus trading for a year-plus or two years-plus is a major difference in terms of what you would be willing to give up. After he declined to opt out following the 2019 season, many of us (myself included) figured he was setting up to opt out after this one. (He can also opt out after next season.) I am of the belief that he is very unlikely to opt out after this season. Not only is he underperforming this season, but he is also potentially entering a totally deflated free agent market that comes on the heels of a shortened season without fans. I am having a hard time seeing teams spending a whole lot this winter.

So, if we go with that line of thinking, then the issue becomes the money that is owed to Martinez. His salary this year doesn’t seem like a huge deal to me — you’d be paying a little under $4 million for that final month’s salary — but the next two could be for some teams. Martinez is owed $19.35 million for both 2021 and 2022, again with the ability to opt out after next season. That is a drop from his salary the last few years, but rightfully or not some teams will not be willing to take on that salary, particularly considering the financial uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. The solution to this is fairly simple, though. The Red Sox can eat some money to make it more palatable and get a better return, something they are reportedly willing to do.

3. The DH Question

This, to me, is the most complicated part of a potential trade and the one that I most have no idea with which to do. Martinez is obviously not a player most teams will want to put in the outfield every day. That is not an issue this year as all 30 teams have the DH, but if you look forward and are of the mind that he is not opting out after this season, things are less clear. Nobody really knows whether or not the NL will have the DH next year, and so if you are an NL club and you trade for him then they take away the DH, you are left with a decision. You can either play Martinez in the outfield, which not only hurts your run prevention but also potentially opens up the veteran to more injuries, or you can try to flip him. But even if you try to flip him, you are suddenly dealing with a market of only a few teams with the clubs that can reasonably roster him cut in half. I tend to think the universal DH is here to say, but would I be willing to risk that gut feeling in a trade like this? I really have no idea.

4. Age

In addition to talent, two of the biggest factors that come into play in trade talks are years of control and age. We talked about the contract part of this, but it is also worth mentioning Martinez just celebrated his 33rd birthday earlier this month. That’s certainly not ancient in baseball terms, but it’s on the way down. Personally, though, I wouldn’t be too concerned about this if you can keep him at the DH spot. Some of this is certainly influenced by how worried you are about his current performance — if you think there are significantly troubling signs, then you are more likely to worry about the aging process. As someone who still believes in the talent, though, I look at players like Nelson Cruz and David Ortiz and see DH’s that weren’t affected by age. I think great hitters hit and they do so for a long time as long as that’s all they’re asked to do. I also think Martinez is a great hitter.

So, where do we land? I’m still not sure! At the end of the day, I don’t believe we’ll see Martinez traded. The more I think about it, the more reasonable questions I see from other teams that would make them unwilling to give up a relatively large package to acquire him. I also don’t think the Red Sox can trade him without getting that relatively large package. If he has a big September and we get more clarity this winter on the universal DH, I think that’s when trade talks could heat up, but for now there’s just too much in the way.