By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — A look at the tea leaves and a reading of the wind patterns this week would seem to indicate that the Red Sox are looking to make a move on free agent outfielder J.D. Martinez as their big offseason signing.
If the Sox — who will meet with Martinez this week at the winter meetings — do land the player, it’s going to cost them. Martinez perhaps won’t fetch the $200 million that agent Scott Boras is seeking, but there’s no doubt that the 30-year-old will easily make over $20 million per year while coming off the best season of his career.
In 2017, split between the Tigers and Diamondbacks, Martinez batted .303 with 45 home runs, 26 doubles, and 104 RBIs. His 1.066 OPS ranked second-best in all of baseball, behind only Mike Trout at 1.071. (Technically, Martinez does not appear on MLB’s batting leaderboards, because he only had 489 plate appearances — 13 plate appearances shy of qualifying.)
And considering the 2017 performance was a progressive step forward from 2016, when he batted .307 with 22 homers and a .908 OPS, it stands to reason that Martinez perhaps hit his prime a year or two later than normal but figures to be a consistent power hitter for the next three or four years at the very least.
That’s all well and good, but … what if Martinez has peaked? What if he never again tops 40 homers? A contract approaching $200 million becomes a bit of an albatross at that point, especially for a franchise that seemed to steer clear of even trying to acquire Giancarlo Stanton (two years younger than Martinez with much more power) and his massive contract.
That being said, even Martinez at a slightly less productive level in 2018 would no doubt buoy the Sox in terms of power. As has been well-publicized, the Red Sox ranked dead last in the American League with 168 home runs on the season. Swapping out, say, Jackie Bradley Jr.’s 17 home runs for Martinez’s 45 home runs would have by itself moved the Red Sox up four spots in the AL home run rankings.
Adding a bat like Martinez’s would certainly help. But perhaps not as much as it would seem.
Though the Red Sox lost their ALDS to the Astros in four games, they actually produced some power in those games. As a team, the Red Sox hit five home runs in four games. Rafael Devers hit a pair, while Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts and Bradley each hit one apiece. (Martinez went 4-for-15 with one home run in the Diamonbacks’ four playoff games in 2017.)
The five long balls were no match for the eight hit by Houston batters, of course, but the Red Sox’ 4.5 runs scored per game didn’t lead to their quick exit from the postseason; allowing Houston to plate six runs per game ultimately led to that demise.
But the ALDS is a small sample size, and the true value of Martinez could better be considered over the course of a 162-game season. Therein lies a problem, though, as Martinez has played 125 games or more just once in his career. A Lisfranc sprain delayed the start of his season until May 12 last year, and a broken elbow kept him off the field for seven weeks in 2016.
And though it may not be a primary consideration when adding a power bat, defense should also factor in to a decision that could cost close to $200 million. In that area, Martinez has been well below average. Per FanGraphs, Martinez had a UZR/150 of minus-21.5 in 2016, a number that rose to just minus-14.8 in 2017. His career UZR/150 is minus-5.8.
By comparison, Bradley had a 5.1 UZR/150 in 2016 and a 4.9 UZR/150 in 2017, with a career UZR/150 of 8.5.
Martinez is also below average in the Outs Above Average stat, registering a minus-5 in 2017. Mookie Betts ranked third in MLB in that department last year at plus-16, while Bradley ranked eighth at plus-11.
Considering Benintendi had a minus-7 OAA and just a 1.3 UZR/150, the Red Sox have to weigh the impact that adding a below-average outfielder will have on the team. The Red Sox’ team ERA of 3.70 — which was second-best in the AL — would figure to certainly take a hit.
All of that being said, after opting to not pursue Stanton, the other options for Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox this winter aren’t necessarily any more appealing. Eric Hosmer and Carlos Santana each have their limitations, and there are reasons aplenty for the Red Sox to resist from overpaying either player.
What it really comes down to, then, is whether the time is right for Dombrowski to open up John Henry’s vault for a player like Martinez, with the hope of the player remaining at his new peak for several years while staying healthy, or whether the Red Sox would be better served to largely keep the status quo and wait until next offseason to break the bank on Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen or Manny Machado.
Ultimately, if the team is going to have to dedicate hundreds of millions of dollars to a single player, patience may prove to be the best option. But the team’s glaring lack of power in the post-David Ortiz era — and the team’s 1-6 playoff record under Dombrowski — may inspire the Sox’ president of baseball operations to act sooner than later.