With Martinez likely to opt-out of his contract at the end of 2020, the Red Sox need to sign him to an extension before he hits free agency.
David Ortiz held his cap high in the air as the Fenway Faithful chanted his name one last time. The longtime Boston Red Sox slugger stood silently. Perhaps he hadn’t prepared a speech because he didn’t expect that they would lose that night, or maybe there was just nothing to say. After breaking curses, building a dynasty, and putting the entire city on his back, he had left everything that needed to be said on the field.
As he walked off the field for the last time, fans and executives alike knew that Ortiz’s retirement would leave a void in the Red Sox lineup. They just didn’t realize how large it would be.
In 2016, Boston was the best offensive team in the MLB. Mookie Betts had broken out for 31 home runs and finished second in MVP voting while Hanley Ramirez, Dustin Pedroia, and Xander Bogaerts were having some of the best seasons of their careers.
However, in 2017, the Red Sox offense struggled mightily. They dropped to 10th in the league offensively, falling short of all projections. Pedroia hit just seven home runs and Bogaerts posted an OPS+ below 100, while Ramirez finished with a negative offensive WAR and Betts hit .264.
When Red Sox beat writer Tim Britton asked what the difference was from the year before, Bogaerts put it simply: “David’s not in the lineup.”
It made sense―with a big bat like Ortiz in the lineup, opposing pitchers would have to give Boston hitters something to hit for fear of walking them and putting runners on for Big Papi. In his absence, they could go right ahead and attack hitters.
Furthermore, players like Betts and Ramirez felt that they now needed to shoulder the load Ortiz had carried. This resulted in higher strikeout and lower walk rates.
Dave Dombrowski quickly realized what he needed to do, and in February of 2018, the Red Sox signed J.D. Martinez to a 5-year, $110 million deal.
With Martinez likely to opt-out of his contract at the end of the season, the Red Sox find themselves in a similar situation once again. But while the Red Sox did not have a choice in Ortiz’s departure, this time they control their destiny in regards to Martinez. And they must sign him to an extension before he hits the open market.
How much money that will take is unclear. But Martinez is unlikely to warrant a hefty salary, as is the trend for even the best designated hitters. Neither Ortiz or Nelson Cruz have ever gotten more than $16 million in a single season. In fact, his current $110 million (or three years, $71 million if he opts out) deal that Martinez signed seems to be the biggest contract ever given out to a DH.
Although he has performed very well over the past two years, when he signs his new contract for 2021 (whichever team it may be with) he will be three years older than he was at the time of his first stint with the Red Sox. Therefore, judging by his initial contract with Boston and the (likely) one year deal he opted into this year, he will probably be aiming for a deal in the four years, $90 million or five years, $110 million range. If he requests such an extension, the Red Sox should pull the trigger without hesitation.
Everyone knows that Martinez is an excellent player. His production in a Red Sox uniform has spoken for itself, winning two silver sluggers in the same season in 2018 and becoming an All-Star again in 2019. However, his impact goes beyond what he does at the plate. Rafael Devers, Bogaerts, and Betts have developed into some of the best hitters in the game under the guidance of Martinez, who acts as an “extension of the hitting coach” (according to Alex Speier in Homegrown).
Also, like Ortiz, J.D. is an avid student of the game. The scout that drafted him, Greg Brown, told Bleacher Report: “Even when he’s not hitting, his mind is hitting”. As a result, he has been able to serve as a guru to his teammates, happily answering any questions they have for him. He often worked in the cage with Betts, mentoring the inquisitive young star who was―like J.D.―adapting his swing to create a higher launch angle.
In addition, Martinez’s attention to every little detail and constant desire to improve has rubbed off on his teammates, who see him as a role model. He even―according to Alex Speier in his book Homegrown―helped organize pre-game meetings to discuss their strategy against that day’s starting pitcher. Martinez is an invaluable leader in the locker room who actively makes his teammates better.
The Red Sox should not shy away from giving him a long term deal if he desires one either. All signs point to Martinez being able to be effective even in his mid-thirties. Without the physical toil of having to play the field, many designated hitters are able to enjoy greater career longevity. Ortiz led the major leagues in OPS when he was 40, Cruz won a silver slugger last year at the age of 38, and Edwin Encarnacion is entering his age 37 season having hit 30+ home runs in each of his last eight years in the MLB.
Also, Martinez’s main strength is his tendency to hit the ball to all fields and his ability to use an uppercut swing to create a high launch angle―two traits that are unlikely to deteriorate with age.
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During J.D.’s time in Boston, the Red Sox have become an offensive force, scoring the second most runs in baseball over the past two seasons. Perhaps they have even surpassed the offensive prowess of the 2013 and 2016 teams. However, we have seen how rapidly a team can fall when their best offensive weapon is taken away. Do the Red Sox really want to experience that again?
Many of the offensive players’ production is fragile. Christian Vazquez had been a weak hitter for most of his career but was finally able to put it together last season. Devers has flaws in his swing that were attacked in his first full season, but was able to overcome them and become elite in 2019. Andrew Benintendi and Michael Chavis have the potential to be very good hitters, but have yet to find consistency over long stretches.
Obviously, Martinez cannot stay with these players for their entire careers. But having a mentor to help them become stable offensive weapons would be quite valuable.
If the Red Sox do not sign him to an extension, they risk losing him in the offseason and being forced to look for another big bat to take his place. However, the 2021 free agent market is exceedingly thin on power hitting outfielders.
It is quite evident that the Red Sox are not willing to pay Betts what he believes he is worth. George Springer’s contract ends at the end of the season, but seeing as he is getting $21 million in his final year of arbitration (Harper got $21.75 million and Machado got $16 million), he is likely to command a high salary as well. Marcell Ozuna will be available, but after a breakout 2017 season, he has been unable to hit above .250 with 25+ homers in the same year. Besides, he will probably be more expensive than the Red Sox DH anyway.
J.D. Martinez is affordable, productive, and defines what a team player is. As such, even if the Red Sox have to pay him slightly above market value to get him to sign an extension, it is a small price to pay in order to ensure that the slugger stays in Boston. With luxury tax penalties resetting and the young core improving every year, if the Red Sox keep their best hitter they will be a legitimate threat to contend in 2021.