J.D. Martinez has until Sunday at 5 p.m. to make a fascinating decision about his future.
Martinez, 34, is entering the fifth and final season of the $110 million deal he inked with the Red Sox in February 2018. He’s due to make $19.375 million in 2022. But he has the right to opt out of the deal and become a free agent — an option he declined after both the 2019 and 2020 seasons, but one that might be more appealing now.
This past season, Martinez confirmed suspicions that his horrific 2020 performance in a compressed 60-game season — in which he didn’t have access to in-game video of his swing — represented an outlier. He posted strong numbers in 2021, even if they fell short of the exceptional standard he’d set from 2014-19.
Martinez got off to a spectacular start that earned him an All-Star berth, then faded through the middle of the year. But he ultimately posted strong numbers, hitting .286/.349/.518 with 28 homers and 73 extra-base hits.
He followed that with a very strong postseason, hitting .344/.447/.688 with three homers while driving in 10 runs in nine games despite playing on an injured left ankle (an injury that actually may have helped his swing mechanics).
Martinez had the right to opt out after both the 2019 and 2020 seasons, but declined in both instances. Obviously, his poor 2020 campaign (.213/.291/.389) wiped out any thoughts of doing so, but his 2019 performance (.304/.383/.557 with 36 homers) was better than what he delivered in 2021.
So why might he opt out this time when he didn’t after 2019?
First, after 2019, he had more guaranteed money remaining on his deal — three years and $62.5 million. He might have found it difficult to match the size and length of that guarantee. Now, it might be easier for him to envision a multiyear deal whose appeal would exceed the one remaining season with the Sox.
That is particularly true given a potentially unique feature of this offseason: the anticipated introduction of a universal designated hitter.
If that happens, then 15 National League teams would have to find solutions at DH. It’s possible that a DH in his mid-30s will never again encounter as many potential suitors.
That said, there are factors working against a robust market for Martinez. The first is age. He turned 34 in August, and long-term deals for players in that demographic are unusual.
No player since Martinez in 2018 has signed a deal of at least three years when expected to primarily serve as a DH. Prior to Martinez, the last deals of at least three years for designated hitters came after the 2014 season.
Nelson Cruz led the majors in homers (40) with the Orioles in his age-33 season in 2014, hitting .271/.333/.525. The Mariners signed him to a four-year, $57 million deal based off that, and Cruz not only excelled for Seattle, he managed to improve through his late 30s, becoming more selective and emerging as one of the game’s elite hitters of the last several years.
Yet coming off of that deal, he ended up signing a one-year, $14 million deal (with a $12 million team option that was exercised) with the Twins for 2019, followed by another one-year, $13 million deal for 2021. He’ll be back on the market and likely in pursuit of a one-year deal this winter.
Victor Martinez, coming off a remarkable age-34 season, re-signed with the Tigers for four years and $68 million in the winter of 2014. That deal proved a millstone that helped push Detroit off the rebuild cliff.
Even players who don’t fit the DH profile find it difficult to get long-term deals. Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner signed a two-year, $34 million deal to return to Los Angeles last winter, just after turning 36. But unlike Martinez, Turner has defensive value (he grades as a roughly average third baseman) and he did not have a qualifying offer attached to him.
The best DH on the market last winter was Michael Brantley, who split his time between left field and DH. He re-signed with the Astros for two years and $32 million. Houston did not make a qualifying offer to him.
The qualifying offer represents another impediment to a robust market for Martinez. If he opts out of his deal, the Sox can make him a one-year, $18.4 million offer for next year, something that would secure a draft pick in compensation if he signs elsewhere. But another team would have to give up at least one draft pick to sign him, something that may limit his appeal.
Finally, Martinez would find plenty of company in the DH/corner market. . Teammate Kyle Schwarber declined his $11.5 million mutual option for 2022, making him a free agent. (The Sox and Schwarber, according to major league sources, have some level of mutual interest in a reunion.)
Cruz will be on the open market. Nick Castellanos opted out of the final two years and $34 million of his deal. Brandon Belt, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, and even Freddie Freeman are players who could appeal to a team looking for a DH or corner position player who can serve as a middle-of-the-order hitter.
In short, the situation facing Martinez is complex, much as it was in 2019, when some Sox officials were surprised by his decision not to opt out. Now, the Red Sox will again await his call, which will set in motion a line of dominos.
“We’re thrilled to have him,” said chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “We’re excited to go forward with him, but we’ll see what decision he makes.”
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Bloom made his first official addition of the offseason, the Red Sox claiming outfielder Tim Locastro off waivers from the Yankees. A speedster who holds the MLB record with 29 successful stolen bases without being caught to begin his career, the 29-year-old has been traded four times in his five MLB seasons, most recently from Arizona to New York in July.
The righthanded hitter has a .231/.333/.329 slash line in 209 games, with five home runs and 31 stolen bases in 34 attempts. His 2021 season ended against the Red Sox on July 17, just nine games into his Yankee tenure, when he tore a knee ligament making a catch against the left-field wall on Alex Verdugo.