- J.D. Martinez enjoyed an outstanding second half in 2017 and is one of baseball's most fearsome power hitters. He and agent Scott Boras are looking for a $200 million contract, which might be a bit ambitious.
Like Eric Hosmer and 15 of the other top 20 free agents among the Reiter 50, J.D. Martinez—who tops that list on the strength of a career high 45 homers—remains unsigned. In the same column that detailed Hosmer's two seven-year offers, USA Today's Bob Nightengale reported that Martinez—like Hosmer, a Scott Boras client—has a five-year offer from the Red Sox on the table, though in his case there's no mention of the actual dollars involved. Elsewhere, Fanrag Sports' Jon Heyman has reported that the Giants, Blue Jays and Diamondbacks — with whom Martinez finished the 2017 season after being acquired from the Tigers—are also suitors, though none should be regarded as the favorite.
As with Hosmer, Boras is aiming extremely high. In November, ESPN's Jerry Crasnick tweeted, "Teams that have reached out early on J.D. Martinez have gotten the impression Scott Boras is looking for something in the $200 million range." As with Hosmer, Martinez isn't going to get anything close to that figure, but it's worth looking at the range of possibilities via my What's He Really Worth system, a model that incorporates a player's last three years of performance, a projection of his future value, and estimates of the market cost for a win, the rate of inflation and age-related decline.
Martinez, who turned 30 on August 21, is coming off a career year in which he hit .303/.376/.690 with 45 homers and a 166 OPS+ for the Tigers (who dealt him for three prospects on July 18) and the Diamondbacks. Only Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge hit more homers, but nobody outdid Martinez’s slugging percentage. Remarkably, he put up those numbers in just 119 games, having missed the first 33 due to a sprained right foot. It was the second year in a row that Martinez has missed roughly a quarter of the season due to injuries; in 2016, he was limited to 120 games by a non-displaced fracture of his right elbow, suffered while running into an outfield wall.
Despite his absences, Martinez has proven to be a heavy hitter, at least since being released by the Astros—who drafted him in the 20th round back in 2008—in the spring of 2014. To that point, he’d hit a meager .251/.300/.387 in three years (2011–13) with Houston, but in Detroit, he revamped his mechanics, adjusting his swing plane to generate more loft on the ball while still remaining in the strike zone as long as possible. From 2014–17, he hit a combined .300/.362/.574 for a 149 OPS+; among players with at least 1,000 PA in that span, that's tied with the since-retired David Ortiz and Arizona teammate Paul Goldschmidt for fourth in the majors, behind only Mike Trout (175), Joey Votto (163) and Stanton (154).
Martinez’s home run total of 128 ranks 10th in that span, while his 5.97% rate of homers per plate appearance is fourth behind Stanton (7.1%), Nelson Cruz (6.3%) and Edwin Encarnacion (6.03%). On a per 650 PA basis, he’s averaged 39 homers over those four seasons, a figure that more or less matches his one full-length season (38 homers in 657 PA in 2015, when he played 158 games and made his lone All-Star team).
So it's fair to say that Martinez is an elite slugger, but that doesn't mean he's a particularly complete player. Via Baseball-Reference, over the course of his seven-year career, he's been below average in baserunning (-10 runs), double play avoidance (-7 runs) and defense (-35 runs). Most of the red ink in the last category is from a fluky-looking -22 runs in 118 games in rightfield in 2016, but his -17 Ultimate Zone Rating for the same season is still awful (he has -25 UZR overall); he "improved" to -5 DRS/-8 UZR last year.
Between those shortcomings and his missed time, Martinez has maxed out at 5.0 WAR (2015) with a pair of 4.2 WAR seasons in 2014 and '17 and a defense-driven dip to 1.8 WAR in '16. Those ups and downs don't paint him in the most favorable light going forward, at least in the WHRW model, which uses Tom Tango's Marcel the Monkey forecasting system ("the most basic forecasting system you can have, that uses as little intelligence as possible") to establish a baseline based upon a 6/3/1 weighting of WAR (six times his 2017 WAR plus three times his 2016 WAR plus his 2015 WAR, divided by 10). Tango's model also includes regression and an aging curve, specifically, a 20% regression in the first year (0.8 times that weighted WAR) and then a baseline loss of 0.4 WAR per year after, with both figures adjusted for age, adding (or subtracting) 0.1 WAR for each year under (or over) 30 years old.
Using that simple forecast with Ben Markham's 2017 estimate of $9 million per win (based on a study of 101 free agent deals last winter) and Matt Swartz's estimate of 5.9% annual inflation within the industry, here's a first stab at what a five-year valuation of Martinez might look like (all dollar figures are in millions):
That's certainly not pretty, especially if Martinez (and Boras) are aiming for seven years and $210 million. Via the aging curve in the forecast above, his value would fall below replacement level in years six and seven, which doesn't exactly strengthen his case. Even using Swartz's high-end figure of $10.5 million per 2017 win only pushes his value for the same 8.2 WAR to $98.4 million.
As with Hosmer, we can see how Martinez's projected value improves with the benefit of some favorable assumptions. Here I'll make two: giving him the benefit of the doubt with regards to that defensive crater in 2016 and scaling that season's WAR to 150 games. Regarding the former, instead of that ghastly -22 DRS, I'll swap in Martinez's career rate for his other seasons in rightfield, projected over the same number of innings; that improves him to -3 DRS, a gain of roughly 1.9 WAR. As for the latter, the broken elbow was a fluke injury caused by a collision; broken bones don't portend more broken bones the way strains and sprains portend further soft tissue injuries, so I’ll give him this break (no pun intended). With those two gains, Martinez’s 2016 WAR jumps from 1.8 to 4.6, his 2018 projected WAR jumps from 2.8 to 3.5 and he's into a nine-digit valuation over the five-year period:
Those two tweaks boost Martinez's value by 43% relative to the first stab, though they don't do anything to suggest his deal should be longer than five years; via the forecast, he's right at 0 WAR for 2023, and -1.0 for 2024. Keeping the five-year outlook and using the higher $10.5 million per win figure boosts the valuation to $140.8 million. While short of Boras' pie-in-the-sky goal, a $28.16 million average annual value would be the sixth-highest in history, the highest ever for an outfielder, and the second-highest for a position player after Miguel Cabrera's $31 million per year extension for 2016–23. Obviously, he’s not the caliber of player that Cabrera is (or was) but record-level salaries have as much to do with timing the market as they do skill.
It’s worth noting that Cabrera’s extension came via Dave Dombrowski, then the Tigers' general manager and now the Red Sox's president of baseball operations. It was Dombrowski who pulled Martinez off the scrapheap in 2014, so the link between the slugger and the Sox has been an obvious one from the start, save for his actual fit within the Boston lineup. With Andrew Benintendi in leftfield, Jackie Bradley Jr. in center, Mookie Betts in right and Hanley Ramirez at designated hitter, the Red Sox don't have an obvious landing spot for Martinez.
Boston could trade Bradley, an outstanding defender who's heading into his age-28 season with three years of club control remaining; the team would take a significant defensive hit (assuming Betts moves to centerfield and Martinez goes to right) but could get back something of significant value in return. Alternately, the Red Sox could shift Ramirez back to first base, a position where thus far he's demonstrated the skill of a man who should instead be DHing (-6 DRS at first base in 151 games), or eat most of the $22 million he's still owed, since there aren't a lot of teams willing to pay much for a player who's been below replacement level two years out of the last three. All of which suggests that Hosmer, not Martinez, is a better fit for Boston, but the team’s re-signing of Mitch Moreland to a two-year deal suggests that’s not the route it’ll take.
Since Martinez doesn’t appear to be a perfect fit, it’s difficult to imagine Dombrowski going so high, and it’s tough to envision the Diamondbacks or Giants doing so, either, as both teams would have to make significant moves to offset Martinez's added salary. Despite returning to the postseason for the first time since 2011, the Diamondbacks appear concerned enough about payroll flexibility to consider trading Zack Greinke, so adding most of the cost of his $34.4 million salary back appears counterproductive. Meanwhile, the Giants are in danger of exceeding the luxury tax threshold for the fourth straight season and will thus pay a 50% tax on every dollar over $197 million (they're at $182.4 million for tax purposes according to Cot's Contracts). The Blue Jays are something of a wild card in all this, which isn't to say they have the materials to compete for a wild card spot given their aging roster, though Martinez would be an upgrade over late-stage Jose Bautista.
Thus, at this juncture it's not clear who's going to break the bank for Martinez. It might take a bidding war to get to that record-level AAV, but even if Martinez can’t drum up quite that level of interest, he’s in for a big payday.