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Can the Red Sox afford not to sign JD Martinez?

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Jul 27, 2017; St. Louis, MO, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks right fielder J.D. Martinez (28) looks on from the on deck circle during the eighth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Boston Red Sox afford not to sign J.D. Martinez?

Before the offseason began, the answer to that question might have been yes. The Boston offense was a disappointment in 2017 despite 93 wins; it had no standout power bats — the highest slugging percentage posted by a full-season regular was Mookie Betts’ .459 — and while they still scored enough runs per game to put them in the top half of the league, the Red Sox were 23rd in the league by adjusted OPS, with a team-wide 92 OPS+.

The team got by due to one of the best pitching staffs and playing home games at Fenway Park, which helped neuter their power outage while not punishing their pitching staff as much as it would have done to a less talented group.

There are reasons to think that the power loss was an aberration, not a new normal: Betts, even though he led the team in slugging, still had a down year from 2016 when he was an MVP contender. Jackie Bradley Jr. regressed at the plate as well; Andrew Benintendi, the top outfield prospect in the organization and the guy handed the left-field job at the start of the year, was only 22 and could be expected to age into some power. A full season of Rafael Devers would add some more pop.

But all of this wishcasting hopefulness goes out the window when the New York Yankees trade for the reigning National League MVP and the man who led baseball in home runs last year, Giancarlo Stanton.

To be honest, it barely held water before. The Yankees already had Aaron Judge, who had a good case to win AL MVP himself, along with a good core of hitters to complement him: Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Didi Gregorius, and likely Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres before too long. The Yankees’ staff still isn’t as good as the Red Sox’ staff, but it’s no slouch — and if Luis Severino doesn’t regress and both Sonny Gray and Masahiro Tanaka stay healthy and return to form, they’re worryingly close to Boston in the rotation, while already having an exceptional back-end bullpen.

The Yankees are clearly ascendant now, and the Red Sox have to do something to keep up.

Martinez solves nearly all their easily-solvable problems at once — he has produced at his current level for four years; taking over in right field would permit Betts to go back to playing center, where a bat like his is more valuable anyway (unless you really, really love dWAR); and after Stanton he’s the top power bat available by any means this offseason. He doesn’t entirely solve Boston’s problems on his own — the Sox need one more power bat somewhere, and the re-signing of Mitch Moreland indicates it likely won’t be at first base — but he does as much as can be expected of one free agent to increase Boston’s ability to contend on paper against the rising star of the American League down in the Bronx.

This logic is so simple, of course, that Martinez and his representation are understandably asking for a long-term deal with a large dollar commitment to make it happen. They’re entirely within their rights to do so, and other teams have interest in Martinez as well — the Arizona Diamondbacks, for example, would be very keen to bring him back, and while San Francisco has been mostly absent from public discussions of Martinez, the Giants are clearly looking for corner outfielders. Right now, no one is signing anyone but relievers, and there still hasn’t been a true free-agent contract signed for more than three years (Justin Upton’s extension from the Angels came in at five years, but he never tested the market); just about every reporter in the country is staying away from openly using the word “collusion,” but it sure seems like every team in the league has decided at once to hold firm on three years for the time being. Boston continues to play the waiting game in lockstep with all its other suitors, hoping to bring Martinez down to five years or perhaps fewer.

What happens if this backfires, and he ends up signing with the Giants, the Diamondbacks, or some other team? Is there a plan B? Well, there’s always a plan B, but the options aren’t particularly appealing. Jay Bruce would become the next best fit on the free-agent market, followed by… Melky Cabrera? Carlos Gonzalez? Seth Smith? A better move would likely be to pursue a trade for Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates, then go all-in on Bryce Harper the following offseason — but that doesn’t really help the Red Sox for 2018. Cutch isn’t the player he used to be on both sides of the ball.

No, the Red Sox need to build with next year in mind first and foremost, because this is a team in the middle of its contention window — it is only going to have so many years of Sale, Price, Kimbrel, Betts and the rest together like this. The Yankees are on the way up, and while Boston isn’t on the way down yet — honestly, it might not even have peaked — Martinez is who Boston needs right now.

Can the Red Sox survive in 2018 without Martinez? No, but if you root for the Yankees, or Orioles, or any other AL East team, you’d probably love to find out.

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Jonathan Bernhardt lives and works in the Baltimore area. He has previously covered Major League Baseball for Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, VICE Sports, and The Guardian.

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