CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
The Red Sox can afford J.D. Martinez in a depressed and depressing market for free agents. They can’t afford to squander the opportunity to reinforce a roster capable of World Series contention that has a use-by date of 2019.
The price was right for the win-right-now Red Sox. That’s why Martinez is going to be batting in the heart of the Boston lineup on Opening Day.
Martinez linking up with the Red Sox on a five-year, $110 million deal was as predictable as spring training pledges of attitude adjustment in the Red Sox clubhouse.
The Red Sox were a home run-starved team that needed a home run hitter. That missing element became as glaring as the Citgo sign after the Yankees, who actually advanced past the first round of the playoffs last season, teamed Giancarlo Stanton with Aaron Judge to form the Bash Brothers Bronx Edition.
Martinez’s addition is fitting because the Sox are a team that is figuratively swinging for the fences under president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. These Sox are built to win a World Series in the next two seasons before free agency and contract demands break them apart.
If the Sox don’t win it all, a tremendous amount of resources, both financially and in terms of valuable and affordable minor league prospects, will have been expended for naught. To borrow the motivational words employed by one Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, the Red Sox didn’t come this far to only come this far.
So, if there is one player who can potentially put them over the top, then they’re too invested to not pursue him, especially in baseball’s buyer’s market.
I remain unconvinced that Martinez is the rightful heir to David Ortiz as the resident middle-of-the-order menace. The man can hit, averaging 32 home runs a season since 2014, but closer inspection of his résumé reveals that he has never been The Guy in a lineup. In Detroit, he played with Miguel Cabrera. In Arizona, he was buffeted by perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt.
But Martinez represents the right contract at the right time for a team operating with urgency because its championship window won’t stay open.
If you’re generous, you can say the Sox have a three-year World Series window. David Price can opt out of his contract and his persecution following this season. Closer Craig Kimbrel is eligible for free agency after this season, as are pitchers Drew Pomeranz and Joe Kelly. Ace Chris Sale, 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, and shortstop Xander Bogaerts can reach free agency following the 2019 season.
Contract combatant Mookie Betts, who seems determined to maximize his value in a Jacoby Ellsbury-esque fashion, and center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. are eligible for free agency following the 2020 season. That’s a lot of heavy lifting and heavy spending for the folks at 4 Yawkey Way to keep this club fully intact. It seems unlikely.
The Sox already squandered a year with this group with a four-game first-round exit at the hands of the world champion Houston Astros last fall.
Martinez reuniting with Dombrowski, who pulled him off the scrap heap in 2014 and brought him to Detroit where he revived and remade his career, was always the logical move.
The 30-year-old Martinez needed to capitalize on the monster 2017 season he had — MLB-best marks in slugging percentage (.690) and at-bat-to-home run ratio (9.6) to go along with a .302 average, 45 home runs, and 104 RBIs in just 119 games. The Sox needed to maximize the collection of talent they have while they have it.
The regressive free agent market minimizes the risk of taking on Martinez, a polished and productive hitter who can handle high velocity but has benefited from two otherworldly halves in his career that skew his numbers a bit.
In his only All-Star season, 2015, Martinez mashed to the tune of .289 with 25 home runs, 89 RBIs, and a .913 OPS in 86 games before the All-Star break. After the All-Star break, he batted .273 with 13 homers and 43 RBIs in 72 games, posting an .838 OPS.
Last season, after missing the first 33 games for the Tigers because of a sprained Lisfranc ligament in his right foot, Martinez compiled a pre-All-Star-break stat line of .299 with 14 homers and 32 RBIs and an excellent .991 OPS in 53 games. But after the break he posted Bondsian mind-blowing numbers, hitting .306 with 31 home runs, 72 RBIs, and a ridiculous 1.123 OPS in just 66 games. Much of that production came in the 62 games he played with the Diamondbacks after Detroit dealt him to the desert July 18.
During the 2016 season, Martinez had the same at-bat-to-home run ratio as Mitch Moreland (20.9), tied for 51st in that category. Martinez posted a .908 OPS in 2016, but played in only 120 games after fracturing his elbow in the outfield that June, finishing with a .307 average, 22 home runs, and 68 RBIs.
It feels like the Red Sox are paying for that guy to fill their DH/designated home run hitter role while hoping they get the transcendent slugger who terrorized pitchers last season and never went double-digit games without a home run.
Regardless of baseball’s shifting economics, if teams really saw Martinez as a proven transformational hitter like Mike Trout, Stanton, Bryce Harper, or an in-his-prime Cabrera, then he would have gotten more interest and more money than the front-loaded deal ($50 million in the first two seasons and $72 million in the first three) he signed with the Sox featuring player opt-outs after years two and three.
But Martinez is a risk worth taking for the Red Sox. While Sox principal owner John Henry (you know what he also owns) is preaching a more aggressive approach in the batter’s box, the same type of aggressive hacks were required by Sox decision-makers to maximize this team.
Martinez is a big swing. He shouldn’t be a whiff like Pablo Sandoval and Rusney Castillo.
If he falls somewhere in the middle between Hanley Ramirez and Ortiz on the slugger spectrum, then the Red Sox won’t regret their investment.
They were already so invested in this team that they really didn’t have a choice.
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