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Re-signing J.D. Martinez: The case for and (mostly) against

It’s very easy to make a case FOR signing him. But should we?

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Arizona Diamondbacks v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game One Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The case for

J.D. Martinez powered our offense over the second-half, in a way rarely seen here. He hit 29 home-runs for the Diamondbacks - enough to get him into the franchise single-season top 20, even though J.D. appeared in just 62 games. And it wasn’t an empty slug-fest either, with Martinez batting .302. Over his brief spell spell with Arizona, he was worth 2.6 bWAR: pro-rate that to 155 appearances, and it comes out to 6.5 bWAR. That’s a level only reached by two outfielders in D-backs history: Luis Gonzalez in 2001, and A.J. Pollock in 2015 (Justin Upton topped out at 6.1 bWAR in 2011).

Martinez would also appear to fill an area of need in Arizona, with two large question marks now hanging over our other outfielder under contract, Yasmany Tomas. How will Yasmany’s health be? And even if he is 100% fit, how much production can we expect from Tomas? Over three seasons and 305 major-league games to date, he has been worth 2.2 wins below replacement level. He also turns 27 next month, so it’s getting harder to expect improvement from Tomas through age and experience. Presuming Tomas does not opt out, the D-backs are on the hook for $46 million through the end of 2020, and you have to wonder, what they will get for it.

The case against

Even as early as May, Martinez was being called the top free-agent player on this winter’s market, and there certainly are few position players who can compete with his age and level of production. The only thing which might stop him from really cashing in, is if teams want to save their financial powder for the monstrous free-agent class of 2018-19. Depending on opt-outs, at this time next year we could be looking at of Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw and Manny Machado, who are sure to be in even higher demand then J.D. this winter Still, make no mistake about it: Martinez is going to be extremely expensive.

That’s because free-agent hitters who bat over .300 with forty-five home-runs do not come onto the market often. A frequent comparison is Yoenis Cespedes, who like J.D. was traded from the Tigers at age 29, in the middle of his walk year, and parlayed a strong second-half performance into a lucrative contract. However, Cespedes batted “only” .291 with 35 HR in 2015. His resulting OPS+ of 136 was thirty points below that of Martinez this year (166). Now, it is fair to say Cespedes is better defensively. But especially given two years of inflation, it seems his four-year, $110 million contract is likely more akin to an opening bid for Martinez.

However, for argument’s sake, say it was enough. Given an even split, Arizona would be contracted for $61.5+ million per year, to just two players: Martinez and Zack Greinke. Now, some of that has been deferred in the case of Greinke. But it will still likely be at least $50 million a year: this would be 40% of the total, even if the Diamondbacks payroll expanded to $125 million. That’s a perilously top-heavy situation for any mid-market team to be in, and GM Mike Hazen knows it, being very cautious today: “We’ll certainly stay engaged with him. We obviously know the type of season he’s had and good for him on that. Where that takes us, I’m not exactly sure just yet.”

Signing Martinez may depend on being able to trade Greinke, in a way that the Diamondbacks escape from the great majority (ideally, all) of the salary burden. With the rise of Robbie Ray this season to fill the role of an ace pitcher, the rotation has become an area of strength. Archie Bradley would dearly love to go back to starting pitching, and a possible roster next year of Ray, Taijuan Walker, Bradley, Zack Godley and Patrick Corbin wouldn’t suck, with Anthony Banda looking to build on a year that was better than his ERA suggested (FIP = 3.24). But it would take some fancy footwork by Hazen to escape entirely from under Greinke’s contract.

There’s also the question of how Martinez will perform, especially after a year such as this. While he has always hit well, his OPS+ in 2015 and 2016 were 139 and 142, significantly lower than this campaign. There’s a real risk whoever signs him will be are paying based on a career season. Martinez also turned 30 in August. Not over-the-hill, by any means, yet a four-year contract would cover his age 30-33 seasons, and decline should be expected. How much, it’s hard to say. The last 29-year-old outfielder to bat .300 with 40+ home-runs was back in 1998. And I’m not sure Sammy Sosa should be used as any kind of predictor of future performance, for obvious reasons.

However, if we look at what happened to 29-year-old OFs who had forty homer years, regardless of average, we can perhaps get an idea of what to expect from Martinez. Here are the five since Sosa, together with what they produced over the four seasons thereafter

  • Carlos Gonzalez: 2015, 40 HR, .271 - 2.1 bWAR (two seasons)
  • Andruw Jones: 2006, 41 HR, .262 - 3.6 bWAR
  • Carlos Beltran: 2006, 41 HR, .275 - 16.6 bWAR
  • Shawn Green: 2002, 42 HR, .285 - 4.1 bWAR
  • Ken Griffey: 1999, 48 HR, .285 - 8.0 bWAR

Of the five, only Beltran performed at the level over the next four seasons which would have justified a fat contract. [While the jury is technically still out on Gonzalez, ask Rockies fans how it’s working out for them] It’s a small sample-size, certainly. Yet they do show the potential pitfalls, and there’s a case to be made that it’s a risk Arizona can ill-afford to take. We’ve seen the team go all in before, after the last two play-off appearances, and it ended very badly. As Derrick Hall said, “We have to do what makes sense now and hopefully improve, but make sure it addresses the need for sustainability.”

We may be better off remembering Martinez’s time in the desert fondly, as a really great one-night stand, rather than trying to get married.