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J.D. Martinez's Inevitable Red Sox Deal Keeps Boston Afloat in American League Arms Race

J.D. Martinez and the Red Sox needed each other. Martinez needed a big-market team to help him realize his nine-figure contract dreams, and the Red Sox needed to fill a David Ortiz-sized hole in their lineup.

Few offseason predictions have been as easy to make as the Red Sox signing J.D. Martinez. Boston is in desperate need of a power hitter; Martinez was the market’s best available slugger. The Red Sox still have a gaping, David Ortiz-sized hole at designated hitter; Martinez is nominally an outfielder but is better served leaving his glove at home.

While the Red Sox are the defending AL East champions, they’ve spent the winter staring up at the Yankees, who added the game’s premier power hitter in Giancarlo Stanton to an embarrassingly loaded lineup and were poised to snatch the division should Boston fail to upgrade its good but inconsistent offense.

Yet for months, the most obvious union in the game remained unfulfilled. Martinez, with super agent Scott Boras planting visions of $200 million contracts in his mind, instead found a surprisingly cold market, with few, if any, teams willing to make his dreams come true. Boston, meanwhile, emerged as an early suitor, but the team kept making noise about needing to shed salaries in order to afford Martinez. How believable that excuse was depended on how you looked at the Red Sox’ payroll, which was at $211.5 million for 2018. On the one hand, that figure is already millions over the luxury tax limit, seemingly tying the team’s hands when it came to further moves. On the other hand, we’re talking about one of the most profitable franchises in baseball; putting $25 million or so per year in Martinez’s pockets wasn’t going to make an appreciable dent in anyone’s bottom line.

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Yet the stalemate held, through Winter Meetings and beyond the New Year and into the first week of spring training, until finally, the two sides came together. On Monday evening, reports broke that Boston had signed Martinez to a five-year deal worth $110 million. That figure is complicated somewhat by the presence of two opt-outs—one after year two, the second after year three—and the frontloading of a majority of the money, turning it into a two-year, $50 million guarantee before Martinez can again try his luck on the open market. Whichever numbers you use, though, it’s a coup for Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox, who got their much-needed man at a fraction of what he should have cost.

One man’s coup, though, is another’s fall, and that’s the case for Martinez, the latest casualty of the frozen free-agent market. While Boras’s initial asking price was never going to be met, Martinez should have been able to do better. Consider that he’s coming off a 2017 season in which he hit .303/.376/.690 with 45 home runs and a 166 OPS+ for the Tigers and Diamondbacks; after being sent to Arizona at the trade deadline, he clobbered 29 homers and slugged .741 in just 62 games. Or there’s the fact that, over the last four seasons, only four other hitters with 2,000 or more plate appearances have done better than Martinez’s 149 OPS+: Mike Trout, Joey Votto, Stanton, and Paul Goldschmidt. With the stick, Martinez is as good as they get.

So why was Martinez’s market so light? For starters, his defense is mediocre at best and harmful at worst: As a regular rightfielder, he’s graded out positively in Defensive Runs Saved just once in the last three seasons. He’s dreadful on the bases, too, again rating negatively according to Baserunning Runs. And having turned 30 in August, he’s getting closer and closer to the inevitable downward slope of the aging curve. All of those concerns add up to a future full-time designated hitter—not a piece that most teams would want to spend $25 million or more on per year.

Boston, though, had no choice but to take the plunge because of last year’s power outage. In the most home run-happy season the game has ever seen, the Red Sox ranked dead last in the American League in dingers with only 168—nearly 80 behind the Yankees, who led the majors. Boston’s .407 team slugging percentage was fifth worst in baseball, and its collective 92 OPS+ was third lowest in the Junior Circuit. And while the Red Sox’ production at DH was fine, the .744 OPS and 24 homers at the position were a far cry from the ageless Ortiz’s final season, in which he went deep 38 times and led all hitters with a 1.021 OPS.

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There’s plenty of reason to think that Boston’s lineup would’ve been better even without Martinez simply thanks to better health, improved luck, and expected rebounds in performance. Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. all had down years despite being in their primes. Hanley Ramirez spent most of the season fighting a shoulder injury that sapped his power. Dustin Pedroia kept going on and off the disabled list and struggled when nominally healthy. Bounce backs from those core hitters, plus Rookie of the Year runner-up Andrew Benintendi taking the next step and a full season of impressive 20-year-old Rafael Devers at third base, would surely cure what ailed the Red Sox’ offense.

But Boston couldn’t afford to take that chance—not with the Yankees having supercharged their lineup with Stanton, and not with the defending champion Astros adding former No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole to their rotation. It would’ve been the definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish for the Red Sox to pass on Martinez when he so perfectly fit what they needed and represents a massive upgrade over the likes of Mitch Moreland and Brock Holt. A third straight AL East title and a deep run in the playoffs—the Sox have been bounced from October in the first round the last two postseasons—weren’t going to happen with Moreland and Holt getting regular at-bats. Plugging Martinez into the middle of the lineup and at DH should make new manager Alex Cora’s job that much easier.

For as perfect a marriage as this is on paper, though, there’s still plenty to figure out to make it a truly harmonious coupling. There’s the presence of Ramirez, who was set to be the regular DH because of his poor defense at first base. Boston will have to see if a Ramirez/Moreland platoon at first makes sense, or if rotating Martinez into the outfield—the position he’d prefer to play—every now and then to give Ramirez time at DH isn’t too much of a disaster. (Although the Red Sox will likely be happy to limit Ramirez’s at-bats, given that he has a $22 million vesting option for 2019 that will automatically trigger if he gets 497 plate appearances this season.) Financially, meanwhile, Martinez’s contract will take Boston’s payroll well above $230 million in 2018, which means not only a hefty luxury tax bill, but also no real room to make any midseason additions if something goes wrong.

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And for all the help that Martinez brings, the Red Sox are far from bulletproof. Even with him in the lineup, Boston could probably use another bat as insurance in case Bradley struggles again, or if Devers can’t adjust to a full season in the majors. Pedroia will miss at least the first month or two of the season with a knee injury. The rotation desperately needs depth, as the options behind Cy Young runner-up Chris Sale and Drew Pomeranz are unpredictable (David Price and Rick Porcello) or injury-prone (Stephen Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez, who is already out through May after knee surgery). The bullpen could also use another arm, banking as it is on the surgically repaired Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg and the unreliable Joe Kelly as Craig Kimbrel’s top setup options.

But while Martinez doesn’t fix those problems, he does address the biggest issue of Boston’s offseason. Given how much better he would’ve made virtually any other team, that he came as cheap as he did is hard to understand. The Diamondbacks, who gleefully watched him bash home runs like Barry Bonds and need lineup help of their own, instead will plug their new outfield hole with Martinez’s polar opposite, light-hitting speedster Jarrod Dyson (a deal that was announced so soon after Martinez’s signing broke that it’s clear Arizona has known he was gone). Plenty of others, meanwhile, could have used Martinez’s bat; the Rockies, Indians, and Cubs stand out in particular as contenders for whom he would have made a lot of sense.

But fear of the luxury tax has won out time and again this winter, as has the utter shamelessness of those teams not even attempting to field competitive squads. With no one else in the bidding, Martinez—who rumor had it was so fed up with Boston’s cold feet that he was willing to sit out the season if he didn’t get the deal he wanted—was forced to give in to a Boston offer that, if reports are accurate, barely budged from the start of the offseason. Even the mighty Boras can’t work his magic when so much of the league doesn’t care to try.

At least Martinez will get to try again two years from now, if the market has improved and more teams are willing to make a real effort at contention. For now, he’ll have to make a happy home in Boston, as proof that sometimes, predictions really can be that easy.