Red Sox: J.D. Martinez’s contract is an absolute bargain

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 14: J.D. Martinez
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 14: J.D. Martinez /

Nine-figure free agent pacts wouldn’t normally be considered team-friendly, yet J.D. Martinez’s deal with the Boston Red Sox will prove to be a steal.

The Boston Red Sox have made some regrettable free agent signings in recent years but their most recent high-profile signing isn’t one of them.

Let’s play a little comparison game. We have two outfielders, Player A and Player B, with the following stat lines and you get to choose which one you’d rather have.

Player A 485 2125 116 .287 .409 .547 152 4.48
Player B 397 1663 105 .296 .363 .580 147 4.57

Overall, I’d give Player A the edge; Player B was slightly better by WAR on a per game basis, but Player A played quite a bit more. However, the takeaway is that these are players of the same caliber. I know you can’t take the suspense so I’ll cut to it: Player A is Prince Fielder in his three campaigns prior to hitting the market in the 2011-2012 offseason. In contrast, Player B is J.D. Martinez in the three years leading up to the 2018 season.

Why is this comparison important? Because the contracts that these players received were not at all similar. Fielder was a young free agent heading into his age-28 season, but his physique raised concerns over how he’d age. He remained on the market until late January, but Scott Boras eventually came to terms with Dave Dombrowski and the Detroit Tigers on a nine-year, $214 million pact. In case you were curious, that number would be roughly equivalent to $234 million, or $26 million per year, today after inflation. (Just plug the numbers in).

Times have changed in baseball in the last five years. Fielder tragically found his way out of baseball, a new CBA has come and passed, and teams have become more wary of giving out long-term free agent contracts.

One thing that has not changed, however, is Dombrowski’s penchant for inking sluggers to long-term deals. On February 26th Dombrowski, now working for the Red Sox, came to terms with Martinez and Boras on a five-year, $110 million deal.

So the gap between these two deals isn’t quite as startling as it is at first glance; Martinez, 30,  hit the market two years older than Fielder did and has three opt-outs in his contract. But those qualifications hardly justify four extra years at a significantly higher rate relative to inflation. Fielder’s contract looked like an albatross the minute it was inked, but it acts as a good juxtaposition for the bargain of a contract Martinez signed with Boston.

It turns out that Martinez’s contract compares favorably with the vast majority of those signed by free agents with similar profiles. Consider the following group: position players between the ages of 28-32 who posted a 130 wRC+ in the three years leading up to their free agencies. It seems like a good place to look; this group constitutes elite hitters on the younger side for free agents. Let’s take a look at how this group did in free agency over the last ten years.

NameYearAgeTotal Value (millions)YearsSalary adj. for inflationwRC+3-year fWARfWAR per 162
Justin Turner201732$644$1613712.35.16
J.D. Martinez201830$1105$2214711.24.57
Mike Napoli201431$322$1714010.84.86
Chris Davis201630$1617$2414013.34.82
Robinson Cano201431$24010$2514218.36.18
Hanley Ramirez201531$884$2313611.65.07
Josh Hamilton201332$1235$2714817.16.89
Prince Fielder201228$2149$2615213.44.48
Matt Holliday201030$1207$2014518.26.51
Jayson Werth201132$1267$2013415.05.41
Mark Teixeira200929$1808$2613914.85.32

Mike Napoli jumps out as an outlier on this list, largely due to the fact that his stats were driven by a fantastic 2011 season; In 2012 and 2013 he was merely very good. Justin Turner’s contract simply made no sense to me at the time and it was heartbreaking last offseason when Boston needed a bat and passed on that deal.

More from Red Sox News

It is worth noting that the trend certainly seems to be moving away from seven-plus year deals, in this group and across baseball as a whole. But the guys who mash home runs get paid. This is evidenced by the fact that the heaviest sluggers in this group, Fielder, Teixeira, and Davis, all received mega deals. So why not Martinez?

Martinez falls near the bottom of this list in overall contribution due to his poor performance in the outfield so maybe that is the main reason his contract is comparatively small. This is definitely a factor here. However, the above table treats their last three campaigns as if they are of equal value. Let’s look at the same group in just their respective walk years.

NameYearAgeGameswRC+fWARHome RunsBAOBPSLGfWAR per 162
Justin Turner2016311511235.0270.2750.3490.4935.36
J.D. Martinez2017291191663.8450.3030.3760.6905.17
Mike Napoli2013301391283.4230.2590.3600.4823.96
Chris Davis2015291601495.4470.2620.3610.5625.47
Robinson Cano2013301601435.9270.3140.3830.5165.97
Hanley Ramirez2014301281363.7130.2830.3690.4484.68
Josh Hamilton2012311481414.8430.2850.3540.5775.25
Prince Fielder2011271621604.7380.2990.4150.5664.70
Matt Holliday2009291561415.4240.3130.3940.5155.61
Jayson Werth2010311561465.1270.2960.3880.5325.30
Mark Teixiera2008281571526.9330.3080.4100.5527.12

There’s a pretty convincing case from this data that Martinez entered free agency as the best hitter out of this whole group. He was held back in terms of games played because of a freak foot injury, but he easily had the best power numbers of any of these players. Considering the power shortage around baseball right now one would expect that Martinez would have been overpaid by someone desperate to bolster their lineup. Martinez may be coming off the best offensive walk year, at least by rate stats, in the last decade. But even the great Scott Boras could only get a deal dwarfed by many of his contemporaries.

Everything this offseason seemed to *collude* against J.D. Martinez; the new CBA has harsher penalties than ever before for going over the luxury tax threshold which has only exacerbated the trend of teams moving away from large free agent contracts. In addition, as I wrote earlier, Martinez was most valuable as a DH and thus had a limited market from the get-go. By the time February came around, there were no clearly viable suitors for Martinez besides the Red Sox.

From the Red Sox’s point of view, the Martinez saga represented something of a perfect storm. The Red Sox finished last in the American League in home runs and lacked a true threat in their lineup. The fact that Martinez is only a slightly better outfielder than I am also wasn’t of the utmost importance to the Red Sox; they really only had room for a designated hitter anyway. The defects that would’ve hampered most teams were minimized with Boston’s roster, while his bat couldn’t have been more needed.

Next: Beeks highlights this week's Prospect Watch

To this point in 2018, Martinez has hit .346/.396/641 with a 174 wRC+ and 11 homers in 39 games. It’s a shame he’s going to opt out after next season.