Welcome back to Free Averency, in which our own Avery Hamel takes a look at all of the Sox in-house free agents ahead of the crucial 2022-23 offseason. Last week, she looked at Michael Wacha. Today, she examines Sox slugger J.D. Martinez.
After turning 2021 into a bounce-back season, J.D. Martinez exercised the final opt-in of his five-year, $110 million contract with Boston. In the end, 2022 did not live up to his own expectations, but Martinez was still an important contributor to the Red Sox. His .274/.341/.488 slash line was lower than the year prior, but still above league average, and the same can be said of his .343 wOBA, 119 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR, and 117 OPS+. He was in good company.
Though Martinez’s performance in this last season was well above average, he was not the home run hitter that Red Sox fans had grown to know him to be. He posted his lowest home run, runs scored, and RBI totals since 2012 (his first full season in MLB), 2016, and 2013, respectively (not including the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season).
With these competing factors, how should Boston go about navigating Martinez’s free agency? He has been above league average in each season with Boston (besides the shortened 2020) and seems to still be effective entering his age-35 season. Is he worth another big contract akin to what former Red Sox President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski signed him to in the 2017 offseason? To answer these questions and predict possible contacts for Martinez, let’s take a look at some players across the league that he is most similar to according to Baseball Savant’s Affinity rating.
2019 Marcell Ozuna:
First up and most similar to Martinez is Marcell Ozuna’s 2019 campaign. Ozuna slashed .241/.328/.472 in this season and posted a 110 wRC+ and 109 OPS+. Peripherally, Ozuna ranked in the 85th percentile in seven different statistical categories in 2019*: Max Exit Velocity (97th), HardHit% (96th), Average Exit Velocity (91st), xWOBA (90th), xSLG (89th), xBA (88th), and Barrel% (85th). Along with this impressive array of top rankings, he also had an 80th percentile walk rate but ranked in the bottom 50% for his K%.
Overall, an impressive season from Ozuna (and one in which he was six years younger than 2022 Martinez) is a good one to be compared to for a player entering free agency for the first time since the fall of 2017.
Although Martinez and Ozuna were at very different points in their careers at the completion of these seasons, it is good to note that the St. Louis Cardinals extended Ozuna a $17.8 million qualifying offer and he ended up signing a one-year/$18 million contract with the Atlanta Braves.
*Martinez ranked in this same percentile range in four categories (Barrels, Barrel%, xSLG, xISO)
An intradivisional constant is the next point of comparison for Martinez. With an affinity rating of .87, Anthony Santander is the next closest comparison for Martinez’s 2022. Santander slashed .240/.318/.455 with a 120 wRC+ and 117 OPS+. Martinez and Santander also similarly contributed to their teams in 2022, as both ranked third among batters on their respective teams.
At only 27-years-old, Santander is younger than Martinez and still arbitration eligible, so there is not much context around him on which to base any upcoming Martinez contract, unfortunately.
Martinez has proved his worth during his time in Boston and, honestly, I think his contract is the best one that Dombrowski ever handed out. But this still raises the question, should Boston bring him back? And if they were to do so, what would be the right price? And what is Martinez likely to ask for in a contract?
Currently, according to Spotrac, Martinez is the highest-valued designated hitter that is set to hit free agency before 2025. His market value sits at just below $15,200,000, with a two-year length listed as optimal. Personally, though, I think Martinez will ask for, and probably get, more than this estimated value.
For context, Marcell Ozuna’s contract with the Braves has a $16.3 million annual average value (AAV). Martinez’s 2018-2022 deal had an AAV of about $20 million. So, realistically, his asking price will be somewhere between this range. Adding to Martinez’s opportunity to profit is the fact that he is far and away the best designated hitter free agent in 2023 and in upcoming years. This will push his price higher, coupled with the fact that the DH is now leaguewide instead of limiting his options to only 15 possible suitors.
Another interesting comparison is Nelson Cruz’s four-year, $57 million contract ($14 million AAV) that he signed with the Mariners in 2014. At this point in his career, Nelson Cruz was slashing .268/.328/.501 with a .356 wOBA and 118 wRC+. Martinez’s career stats sit at .288/.352/.520 with a .368 wOBA and 132 wRC+. He is 35, and Cruz was 34 when he signed his contract.
Considering that contract was given out eight years ago, this is likely not a reasonable figure to offer Martinez (and is something he would probably scoff at).
With all of this information, my best guess for a Martinez contract would be somewhere in the two-year, $19 million range. Martinez is getting older, and the game is evolving to favor more athletic players, even in the DH spot. A contract longer than two years is unlikely and $19 million is more than reasonable in this context.
What should the Red Sox do?
Well, the first option for the Red Sox is to extend Martinez a qualifying offer. The play in this would be to guarantee a draft pick as compensation if Martinez were to sign with another team in his free agency. There is danger in this too, though, so the Red Sox have to be careful.
Over the past couple of weeks, Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom, along with Red Sox manager Alex Cora have expressed the need for more athleticism. This would indicate they’re leaning towards not bringing Martinez back (he ranks in the 23rd percentile in sprint speed— meaning he would barely edge out 42-year-old Nelson Cruz in a race to first, if that tells you anything).
So if the Red Sox were to extend a meek qualifying offer with the simple hope of gaining a draft pick in doing so, there is a possibility that Martinez would accept this, and the team would be stuck with something that doesn’t fit their “vision” of the future makeup of the Boston Red Sox.
But, they are still likely to do this simply for compensation purposes.
In the end, I don’t quite know if I see a way for Martinez and Boston to make a deal at this point, based on comments made by Cora and Bloom. Martinez is a great player, and as I said earlier, his contract was one of the best in recent Red Sox free-agent history. I would love to have him back in Boston at the right price, but at the end of the day, it seems likely that the front office goesin a different direction, and they have more pressing matters to spend money on than keeping their 35-year-old DH.
What Should The Red Sox Do With J.D. Martinez?
This poll is closed
Extend him the qualifying offer
Work out a new deal
Let him walk with no qualifying offer