Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora plans to use J.D. Martinez primarily in right field when he gets his chances to play the outfield.
J.D. Martinez was brought here for his bat yet he came with a glove anyway. When the Boston Red Sox signed him last year to cure the power drought in their lineup, the expectation was that Martinez would primarily serve as the designated hitter. Except the veteran slugger wasn’t interested in being locked into a part-time role as an everyday DH. Convincing Martinez to sign on the dotted line came with the promise that he would occasionally see time in the outfield.
Manager Alex Cora kept that vow by inserting Martinez in the outfield in 57 of the 150 games he appeared in last season. His 97 games as a DH still made up the vast majority of his playing time yet grabbing a glove in 38 percent of his appearances was a bit more than we anticipated seeing Martinez play defense.
Don’t expect that to change this season. According to WEEI.com’s Nick Friar, the plan is to use Martinez in right field for games where he factors into the defense. Aside from the rare cases when Mookie Betts needs a day off, this will push the reigning AL MVP to center field and send Jackie Bradley Jr. to the bench.
"“As far as positioning, we put him spots that he’s going to make plays, and he actually makes good decisions,” Cora said. “Throwing-wise, he throws to the right bases and he has a good arm and then … Mookie is a great centerfielder. I think we maximize everybody that way. Actually, I feel we were better defensively when we went that way, instead of early in the season. We’ll stick to that one.”"
Martinez made most of his outfield appearances in left field last season, playing 32 games at the position compared to 25 in right. However, as they watched more of what Martinez could (and couldn’t) do in the outfield, the Red Sox shifted toward using him more in right later in the season. He also has far more career appearances in right (464) than left (316).
While he still rates as a below-average defender by most metrics, Martinez wasn’t quite the liability we feared. He tallied -2 defensive runs saved in left and -3 in right last season, which would have put him on pace for -12 DRS over a full season in the outfield. Obviously, that’s not great, yet it would have been outside the bottom-10 among major league outfielders.
The problem with this plan is that the Red Sox have the best right fielder in baseball. Betts has earned three consecutive Gold Glove awards and has defensive metrics that are off the charts. Replacing a historically great right fielder with Martinez is a far more significant downgrade than plugging him in left field at the expense of the good-but-not-elite Andrew Benintendi.
Assuming Betts remains in the lineup, sliding him over to center field bumps another Gold Glove winner from the outfield. Betts is a very capable center fielder but he’s not quite at Bradley’s level. Now you’re downgrading defensively at two positions.
If the notoriously streaky Bradley’s bat goes cold and they need to get him out of the lineup, moving Betts to center and plugging Martinez in right would be one way to do it. Does the best lineup in baseball really need that upgrade if it comes at a significant expense to the defense?
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It’s certainly not their ideal alignment but if the Red Sox insist on giving Martinez time in the outfield then letting him play right may be better than the alternative. While Betts can sufficiently move to center, Benny represents a far steeper downgrade from JBJ. Benintendi was a natural center fielder in college and in the minors but the -9 DRS he produced in 59 career games at the position suggests he’s better suited at a corner spot.
Using Martinez in the outfield is going hurt the defense no matter what the alignment looks like but it’s a necessary evil that the Red Sox must endure. The veteran has the option to opt out of his contract next winter so the team will do everything they can to make him happy. If that means appeasing him by letting him play defense a couple of times each week, so be it.
Taking a massive hit by placing him in right, along with the slight decline that comes with Betts moving to center, is easier to stomach than downgrading significantly at two spots or making it a habit to remove Benny from the lineup. By this logic, Cora’s decision to use Martinez more often in right field makes sense.
A better solution would be to put Martinez in left and Benintendi in the DH spot. That leaves Bradley and Betts in their customary positions and allows Benny’s bat to remain at the top of the lineup. There’s still a bit of a defensive downgrade but the drop-off from Benintendi to Martinez isn’t nearly as staggering as replacing either of the Gold Glove winners. There’s far less room to navigate in the shadow of the Green Monster at Fenway Park, making it easier for the lead-footed Martinez to cover.
Cora has his reasons for believing that Martinez is better in right field than in left and he’s not wrong. Yet I’m still left wondering if the difference between how he performs at either corner can make up for removing an elite defensive player from the board.