Red Sox Free Agency: Patience pays off with J.D. Martinez signing

PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 24: J.D. Martinez /

Boston Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski held his ground in negotiations with free agent J.D. Martinez and it paid off.

When Dave Dombrowski hones in on a target he typically gets his man. Convincing J.D. Martinez to sign with the Boston Red Sox is the latest high-profile acquisition to keep this reputation intact. The only difference this time was Dombrowski’s tactics.

Dombrowski shelled out $217 million for David Price when the Red Sox desperately needed a frontline starter, blowing away offers from any other potential suitor. When Price fell short of living up to the ace mantle, Dombrowski raided the farm system to acquire Chris Sale in a trade for a massive haul that included a pair of blue-chip prospects. Whatever it takes to solve the team’s most glaring weakness, that has been the Dombrowski way.

Not this time. Steeper luxury tax penalties in the new CBA and several of the usual free-spending teams saving up for next year’s loaded free agent crop combined to create an unprecedented slow market. Dombrowski recognized this and pivoted to a different approach.

The winter began with Martinez’ agent, Scott Boras, floating the concept of a seven or eight-year deal for his client that could top $200 million. Dombrowski scoffed at committing that many years to a 30-year old best suited for the designated hitter role. It soon became clear to everyone outside the Martinez camp that the mega-deal he was seeking wasn’t going to be there. Not in this market.

Rumors swirled for weeks that the Red Sox had an offer on the table in the range of $100-125 million. The details were hazy but the one constant was that Dombrowski wasn’t willing to go more than five years for Martinez.

Boras pulled out all his usual tricks, manipulating statistics in an attempt to prove why his client was worth the contract he demanded. Martinez followed through on his threat to hold out into spring training, remaining unsigned as players reported to camp last week. In any other year, those tactics may have worked. Not this year.

Dombrowski refused to panic as the season drew closer. He held firm to his stance and his patience finally paid off. In the end, Martinez agreed to a deal that benefits both sides.

The five-year, $110 million deal falls in the range that had been rumored with a few tweaks. The heavily frontloaded contract includes opt-outs after the second and third seasons, according to NBC Sports Boston’s Evan Drellich. It’s essentially a two-year, $50 million deal that could turn into 3-year, $72 million, assuming he exercises one of the opt-outs.

Martinez was clearly frustrated by the stagnant free agent market. Jumping into next year’s loaded free agent class wouldn’t improve his odds of finding a better offer. However, his outlook may improve in two or three years. If the market returns to some semblance of normalcy, Martinez could cash in while he’s still in his prime.

While the opt-outs provide a clear long-term benefit to Martinez, the provisions also benefit the Red Sox. Dombrowski would presumably be thrilled if he managed to sign Martinez to a two or three-year deal. He’s essentially done that, with the expectation that he’ll bolt in a few years and take Boston off the hook for paying him during his decline phase.

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If Martinez leaves after two seasons his salary comes off the books just in time for the Red Sox to re-sign Xander Bogaerts. If he leaves after three years then his departure clears payroll space for when Mookie Betts can hit free agency. Dombrowski needed Martinez’ bat to fill a short-term need but still has to plan ahead for retaining the young core of this team.

Worst case scenario, Martinez declines rapidly over the next few years and doesn’t opt out. In that case, at least the team has some protection in the form of his declining salary. Martinez will make $25 million in the first two years when he should be most productive. His salary dips to $22 million in the third year and $19 million in each of the last two seasons.

The $22 million average annual value is all that matters for luxury tax purposes. That allows the Red Sox to avoid going over the threshold by $40+ million, which would result in the steepest penalties.

Dombrowski took some heat throughout the winter for his lack of activity. Fans complained that he hadn’t done enough to catch up to the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians. They became irritated when there was no immediate response to the Yankees acquiring Giancarlo Stanton. Why were the Red Sox allowing themselves to fall further behind the competition?

It turns out there was a plan in place all along. Dombrowski wasn’t all talk. He intended to take action, he simply had to wait for the right moment. While there was risk in waiting, there was far more downside in caving into Martinez’ initial demands to appease an anxious fan base.

Next: Martinez may not be the answer

Dombrowski knew he had the best hand at the table and played it perfectly. He called Boras’ bluff by refusing bid against himself. It’s not the whatever it takes approach we are used to seeing from him but it worked.