J.D. Martinez is unquestionably the best offensive player on the free-agent market this winter. The 30-year-old slugger is coming off a career year in which he obliterated his past career-highs in home runs and isolated power, while also posting career-bests in walk rate, wRC+, and xwOBA. He was positively terrifying after his trade to the Arizona Diamondbacks in July. For four consecutive seasons, Martinez has been a top-five hitter in baseball.
This is a funny market for Martinez, however. While he may not be able to command a $200 million contract like his agent, Scott Boras, believes, he could easily push past $150 million. Such an asking price limits the number of teams willing to pursue him, and while he’s not exactly ancient, Martinez will be entering his age-30 season, leaving only a few peak years to be guaranteed under his next deal. Contenders with big pocketbooks are the ones who will chase him. Which ones are chasing a playoff spot and have need for a corner outfielder/designated hitter? Here are three.
1) ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
The Diamondbacks are ahead of schedule, managing to put together their best season in six years after a series of medicore campaigns, coupled with bad trades that emptied their farm system. General manager Mike Hazen quickly righted the ship, while several frontline players bounced back after disappointing 2016 performances.
Arizona was certainly good without Martinez, but the D-backs were outstanding with him. He smacked 29 home runs in only 257 plate appearances with the Snakes, running a 172 wRC+ and a .431 xwOBA. He seemed right at home next to fellow right-handed masher Paul Goldschmidt, and despite a sweep in the NLDS by the Los Angeles Dodgers, the D-backs had little to complain about.
Martinez certainly fills a need in right field next season. Even after arbitration, Hazen should have only $115 million in payroll commitments, while bringing back the entire squad that got the team back to the playoffs. Due to the bevy of arbitration-eligible guys on the roster, he can keep most of the core in place and relatively affordable for the next couple years if he wants to.
Perhaps Hazen will balk at the $200 million asking price. He should. Even so, why not give Martinez five years and $150 million? That average annual value will be substantial, but it keeps annual payroll well south of the luxury tax threshold. Hazen won’t commit too many years to Martinez’s decline phase, either. It’s an open question whether such a contract could come through, and even a sixth year at a lower AAV could be easily justified. There was a lot of magic at Chase Field when Martinez stepped into the batter’s box. There’s every reason Hazen should let it continue.
2) BOSTON RED SOX
By all accounts, Dave Dombrowski is ready to move on from Hanley Ramirez, who was by no means a bad player in 2017, and in 2016 was very solid. He’s about to turn 34, however, and Dombrowski wants all the shiny toys he can get. He seems prepared to try to ship Ramirez somewhere, for something, while eating a large chunk of the salary to make way for Martinez.
The problem with the Red Sox is that they will be up against the luxury tax threshold once arbitration salaries are sorted out. That doesn’t mean Dombrowski will mind paying penalties to get Martinez, but he also needs to upgrade first base, and Scott Boras will create a bidding war between the Royals and Red Sox for Eric Hosmer’s services. The specter of next year’s free-agent class looms large, and should Dombrowski swallow Ramirez’s salary and ink both Hosmer and Martinez, he won’t have any room to maneuver next offseason, when the Dodgers and Yankees will be engaged in an arms race. Dombrowski would obviously love to try to extract value from Ramirez in his potential walk year, but his salary will suck the Sox’s coffers dry. Hosmer is the priority; Martinez feels like a too-pricey luxury.
On the other hand, never doubt the size of ownership’s checkbook when Dombrowski is writing them.
3) SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
More than a few outlets have floated the idea of Martinez ending up at AT&T Park. It makes some sense, at least on its face. The Giants have been terrible for a season and a half, but they’re still probably not going to be that bad again. The infield and the top of the rotation are still ready and able to contend for another World Series ring. GM Bobby Evans loves to use free agency to fill out the dyed-in-the-wool Giant players who will never play anywhere else.
While the infield is in stable shape, the outfield is in tatters, particularly on the corners. Hunter Pence is old and washed up, and left field is currently a black hole. Martinez would fit perfectly on either side of Denard Span. He may not hit 45 home runs again in the home run dead zone that is AT&T, but he’ll still generate tons of power.
The problem is that many of Evans’s previous free-agent signings now look like sunk costs. Span, Johnny Cueto, and Mark Melancon haven’t provided the value their contracts promised. After arbitration, the Giants are staring at a roughly $180 million payroll commitment. If they wade into the Martinez market, they will push well past the luxury tax, and their options for next offseason will narrow.
What’s more, Evans desperately needs a third baseman. He’s facing the same conundrum Dombrowski is facing. Evans may go for it, but if the Giants have another down year, they will be saddled with a bad major league team, a bloated payroll, and no farm system, not to mention at least two teams ahead of them in the NL West for the foreseeable future. Evans would be wise to let Arizona have Martinez.