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Now is the Winter of Discontent

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Will this stagnant offseason drive J.D. Martinez back to Arizona for 2018 and under what circumstances would that make sense for Arizona to consider?

Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Los Angeles Dodgers - NLDS Game One Photo by Sarah Sachs/Arizona Diamondbacks/Getty Images

As the sun set on the 2017 season, J.D. Martinez had to be feeling pretty good. He had just turned in a historic second-half performance, the likes of which no one had ever seen, helping to lead his new team to the playoffs. As a result, he was entering the 2017-18 free agent market being touted by many as one of the two or three best players available on the market and arguably the best position player available. At age 30, Martinez was set to put pen to paper on a life-altering contract. Then, the unexpected winter market of 2017 happened. Or rather, it didn’t, at least not for Martinez. Not yet anyway.

A perfect storm of front offices around baseball relying more on analytics to dictate contract terms, the Dodgers and Yankees trying to trim payroll in advance of the 2019 super-class of free agents, and Scott Boras’ immense ego has brewed to create an almost stagnant free agent market - one in which only four of the top 15 free agents have signed with only six days remaining until pitchers and catchers report for spring training. Among those unsigned, is J.D. Martinez.

That isn’t to say that Martinez has not had suitors. It is very public that the Boston Red Sox have extended Martinez a rather sizeable offer. The reports on that offer vary, but they all seem to agree that the pact would be for five or six seasons and guarantee in excess of $100 million. The most common rumour is that the contract offer is for 5-years/$125 million. The offer was made in early January. At the time, it made some sense for Martinez to sit on the offer to see what else came his way. Since then though plenty else has happened, and almost none of it good for Martinez.

  • The Yankees made the decision to continue cutting payroll, while simultaneously trading for superior player and even bigger slugger, Giancarlo Stanton.
  • Scott Boras’ demands scared the Royals away in the early-going and they have since moved on.
  • The Dodgers made huge cuts to payroll and made it very clear they were not interested ni any large contracts this season.
  • The Toronto Blue Jays, an early front-runner as a potential destination, took a low-cost approach to fixing their outfield situation by trading for Randal Grichuk.
  • The San Francisco Giants, considered by many as the most likely destination for Martinez when the winter began, traded for a pair of former franchise icons in Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen to bolster their offense.

Suddenly, the list of logical potential suitors for Martinez was dwindled down to two, the Boston Red Sox, who had already made a strong offer, and the Arizona Diamondbacks. The problem with that particular pair for Martinez is that only the Boston Red Sox had the financial means to make a strong offer, with Arizona being a suitor only because of the relationship Martinez built with the team during his brief stint as a rental player in 2017.

With only one suitor offering a legitimate long-term contract, it seemed that Martinez would sign with Boston, potentially opening the floodgates on the rest of the free agent market. After sitting on the offer for a month now, Martinez has still not signed with Boston. In fact, it now appears that, despite the lack of other offers, that Martinez still has no real desire to play in Boston, nor does he feel Boston is making a strong offer.

With these revelations by Ken Rosenthal, the question of Arizona’s suitability for Martinez took on new life. Shortly thereafter, this followed:

And then this:

Obviously, this has become a source of moderately tempered excitement for many Arizona fans. A return of J.D. Martinez’s bat to the Arizona lineup gives the team a very different identity than the one they currently project to take into the 2018 season. But what would a reunion with J.D. Martinez look like for Arizona, and would it actually make sense?

Here are a few things to consider:

  • First, if the Diamondbacks are bringing back J.D. Martinez, they clearly plan to go for the gold in 2018. This makes trading Greinke to free up salary a non-starter. You don’t jettison the team’s best pitcher when making a play for a return to the postseason.
  • The Diamondbacks do have some money coming to them from the MLBAM sale, but the when is still a bit foggy. Nor has there yet been any indication of how much (if any) remains to be spent on team payroll, as this will be a one-time payment.
  • J.D. Martinez was a late-bloomer. He will play the majority of 2018 at the age of 30, already on the wrong side of the typical aging curve.
  • Claiming that Martinez’s outfield defense is horrible is quite possibly being a bit kind. THis means that he will need to continue being a monster at the plate in order to put together any substantial value, especially playing the vast majority of his games in spacious NL West ballparks.
  • The Diamondbacks were already a playoff team without Martinez in 2018. His arrival simply made an already good team even better.
  • The Red Sox really need an impact bat, and can, at any time they choose, blow away any offer made by the Diamondbacks.

Considering all this, does a reunion with Martinez still make sense for Arizona? The short answer is, maybe. The pros and the cons are fairly evenly weighted, assuming that traditional wisdom holds up. Given the way this winter has progressed, traditional wisdom holding up is far from a sure thing.

The Pros:

  • Over the last three seasons, Martinez has swatted an impressive .296/.363/.580 en route to a 148 OPS+.
  • Against left-handed pitchers, Martinez’s numbers are even better. He kills them.
  • The Diamondbacks have a short window for being competitive before they must make decisions about what to do with the future, especially Paul Goldschmidt and Robbie Ray. Martinez would represent a significant offensive upgrade over any other candidate on Arizona’s radar for playing the outfield for the next couple of years.
  • Flags fly forever. If Martinez stays in Arizona and helps propel the team to more playoff victories, precious few will be caring about the downsides.

The Cons:

  • If reports coming out of Boston are even close to accurate, it is going to take an AAV in excess of $25 million per season for the Diamondbacks to sign Martinez. With $35 million already dedicated to Zack Greinke and another $13.5 million going to Yasmany Tomás, that’s a minimum of $$73.5 million tied to just three players for a team working with a severely limited operating budget.
  • As previously noted, Martinez was a late bloomer and will be 30 for the bulk of 2018. As pointed out earlier, elsewhere in the pit,this gives reason for concern. Martinez’s already poor defense is only going to decline over the next three seasons, creating an even bigger burden for his bat to carry.
  • Martinez is not going to repeat his 2017 performance. Many Arizona fans are excited to see what sort of assault Martinez can continue to make on the record books if he continues to play half his games in Chase Field. The reality is, there is a reason no player had ever before done what Martinez did in the month of September. It was a statistical outlier of a performance. Over the previous three seasons, Martinez has averaged just over 33 home runs per year, or four more than he hit in roughly six weeks of playing for Arizona. If Martinez’s bat is not putting together an epic performance, the defensive woes will weigh even heavier on his total combined value.
  • Martinez is a true injury concern. Even when Martinez was in his prime years, he had trouble staying healthy and on the field. In his seven seasons in the majors, he has reached the “lofty” total of 120 games played only three times and has managed enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title only once. With every player on the wrong side of the aging curve, injury becomes an increased concern. For someone with a fairly prolific history of injuries, the concern is greatly magnified.

As noted elsewhere in the Pit by shoewizard, a fair comparison for J.D. Martinez that should give Arizona pause when considering a contract with him is Magglio Ordonez.

Through age 30, put up 25 WAR for the White Sox. Was actually quite durable 24-29, but had a knee injury that cost him half a season at age 30.

He was an excellent hitter, 127 OPS+ in over 4,000 PA, but a bad defender.

Signed a 5 year 75 M deal with Tigers, which is about 110 M in today’s dollars per the CPI calculator, so similar to what JD is being offered now.

His WAR for the next 5 seasons:

1.6, 1.8, 7.3, 2.1, 0.8

One great season and a whole lot of just average. He still hit, averaging 128 OPS+ during the deal, but the 5 yr avg very much driven by the one great year. OPS+ those 5 seasons:

114, 112, 166, 127, 111

Given Martinez’s injury history, Ordonez begins to look like a best-case scenario more than a worst-case, as Martinez would have fewer at-bats with which to make his mark, and much tougher defensive responsibilities to account for playing in outfield in the NL West, rather than the AL Central.

How Could It Work?

Most obviously, the first thing that would need to happen is that Martinez would need to agree to a shorter deal to play for Arizona. Arizona offering anything more than three years becomes too much of a risk for Arizona in terms of performance decline, especially on the offensive side. Short of hitting like Barry Bonds in years four and five of a longer deal, Martinez would be hard-pressed to be able to live up to the contract. His bat is good. It isn’t Bondsian.

Secondly, creativity in the construction of the contract would likely have to come into play. Despite Martinez’s feelings for Boston, it seems unfair to expect that he would re-sign with Arizona for both fewer years and fewer total dollars unless there was something else in it for him. One regularly discussed option would be to sign Martinez to a contract similar to the one Yoenis Céspedes signed with the New York Mets after the 2015 season, which granted an opt-out after only one year.

The first two parameters are squarely within the Diamondbacks’ control. The last, however, is not. The third thing that will need to happen is that Martinez will need to stand up to Scott Boras and demand that a fairly negotiated deal that suits both the Diamondbacks needs and means be accepted, even if it is less than what Boston offers - even if Boston increases their offer. Boras is already well underway laying the groundwork for his high profile clients to sit out until his demands are met. The Diamondbacks cannot afford to wait until late into spring training, or even into the beginning of the season, to bring in another outfielder. That means that Martinez, who has already said he would be fine sitting out until the right contract comes along, would need to decide the Diamondbacks are offering the right track, and then make sure that Boras is on board.

The closer the calendar gets to both spring training and the regular season, the more teams are going to have leverage over the players still unsigned. That means, the longer this plays out, the better Arizona’s chances are that Martinez just might return. That is, unless this plays out for too long, and Arizona is forced to finally turn their attention elsewhere.

The Hold-Up(s)

Scott Boras is a big part of the issue at this point. His hard-nosed stance has scared many teams away from even negotiating with his clients, including Martinez. Given that he also represents Carlos Gonzalez, a decent alternative for teams looking to take a flyer alternative to Martinez makes things difficult as well, as Boras is not going to allow CarGo’s contract negotiations undermine Martinez’s

The Céspedes alternative is a flawed one. While Céspedes, like Martinez will be was 30 years old when he signed his deal with the Mets, he was still at least an average defender in the outfield, including the ability to play center field competently. Furthermore, Céspedes was not coming off a career season, highlighted by an unsustainable month of performance. Rather, he put together a solid season that, for most, looked quite repeatable. An assessment which turned out to be true, leading to his securing a larger deal when opting out after only one season. By comparison, Martinez is a designated hitter attempting to play right field. He has little to no value on the bases, and is coming off a career season. There is no reasonable expectation that Martinez is going to repeat his great stretch in 2017 when he plays in 2018. In fact, the odds are overwhelmingly against it. A decrease in performance from 2017 to 2018, even if it is simply back to his three-year average, is going to look bad, creating a poor platform for negotiations in 2019. It is entirely possible that if Martinez were to sign and then opt-out in 2019, he would be staring at one or two 4-year/$100 million offers.

Then there is the 2019 market itself to consider. Here, in 2018, Martinez is one of the two or three best players available. Next season, he is probably the tenth or twelfth-best. This means that, while he might wind up looking like a bargain when compared to the likes of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, he will also have to contend with being lumped into the “second tier” of players, where he will then be compared to other, more rounded players who might cost less while providing close to the same total value once defense is taken into account. Finally, he’ll have to find a new group of suitors. This season, Martinez is not attached to a qualifying offer. Next season he will be. Furthermore, the Red Sox will have filled their need for a slugger and the Diamondbacks will be looking to move on. The Dodgers will be focused on retaining Clayton Kershaw. The Yankees will be chasing Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. Finding a new suitor, especially when attached to a qualifying offer, will not be an easy task.

In short, making the opt-out an appealing incentive to pass on two or more years and as much as $55 million dollars seems like a hard sell.

So, will it happen?

It’s anybody’s guess at this point, but the smart money still points to Martinez eventually ending up in Boston. If Arizona wants to be truly aggressive though, they could at least make an interesting offer. It could possibly work for all parties if Martinez could be talked into something like:

2 years/$52 million, with a mutual $27 million option for a third year with a $2 million buyout and an opt-out after one year.

The Diamondbacks could possibly get even more aggressive by offering to guarantee the third season. What Arizona really cannot afford to do is to go much higher on AAV though, as they need to still get some value out of Martinez, and to be protected in case he elects not to opt-out.

However, as mentioned above, Boston has the ability to counter any deal proposed by Arizona with a better one. Bob Nightengale is predicting Martinez winds up in Boston on a 5-year deal worth $130 million which would also include an opt-out. This seems like a very likely scenario, as it would include both the somewhat minor increase in AAV and the opt-out which Arizona could use to try and lure Martinez into staying with Arizona. If Martinez can get that deal, more power to him. I wish him the best, but it will be time for the Diamondbacks to move on and look at other options.