Red Sox: J.D. Martinez’s future potentially altered by universal DH

The universal DH could lead to J.D. Martinez leaving the Red Sox.

The Boston Red Sox have long been a team with an offense built around a designated hitter. David Ortiz anchored the lineup for 14 years in that role and the responsibility has since been passed to J.D. Martinez. This heavy emphasis on utilizing a DH presented a problem during any road series against the National League but those concerns may soon be eliminated.

MLB Network’s Jon Heyman reported that the framework of the league’s latest proposal included several concessions that owners are willing to make, including the implementation of a universal DH. This change that players have been pushing for in recent years would bring the DH to the senior circuit, paving the way for more opportunities for older and defensively-challenged players.

The player’s union hasn’t accepted this offer and further negotiations are expected as the players push for more than 60 games. However, the universal DH is one aspect that will almost certainly be retained in any eventual agreement. When baseball finally returns, expect the DH to be used in both leagues.

The deal will probably lock in this change for the next two seasons, after which the next collective bargaining agreement will presumably make it a permanent change. The days of pitchers floundering at the plate with a bat in their hands are probably over.

A universal DH benefits the Red Sox in the short term. Martinez is best suited for the DH role and that isn’t going to change as the 32-year-old ages. Now when the Red Sox travel to NL cities they won’t face the unenviable decision of whether or not they should bench their best hitter. This is impractically problematic in the event that the Red Sox make it to the World Series. While that may seem to be an unlikely scenario, we can’t rule it out with the expected expanded playoff format increasing Boston’s odds.

Allowing Martinez to play in the outfield weakens the team defensively, significantly so if Jackie Bradley Jr. is the odd man out. Sitting a different outfielder means taking another productive bat such as Andrew Benintendi or Alex Verdugo out of the lineup. Any choice they make weakens the offense, defense or both. All so that an automatic out can be added to the bottom of the order in the pitcher’s spot.

These problems vanish if every team is using a DH.

The change isn’t entirely good news for the Red Sox. While they gain an advantage for some games in 2020, the universal DH could lead to Martinez leaving town.

Martinez has the option to opt-out of his contract at the end of this season. He passed up the opportunity to test free agency when given the chance last offseason, in part because $23.75 million is a lot to give up in an uncertain market where he wouldn’t necessarily earn a higher average annual value on his next deal.

His salary falls to $19.35 million in each of the final two years of his contract if he doesn’t exercise the opt-out clause. The dip in salary might entice Martinez to opt out but lingering concerns about the market for a soon-to-be 33-year-old DH might make him hesitant. Not many AL teams have money to spend and have a clear need in the DH role. The number of teams in the market for that type of player essentially doubles if NL teams join the mix, making the free agency route far more appealing.

The Red Sox might be able to keep Martinez even if he does test free agency but it will cost them more with the increased competition. Losing his bat in the middle of the lineup would be devastating to the offense but spending more to retain him isn’t ideal either when Boston has greater needs in the starting rotation plus several young players they need to lock up in the near future.

Next: MLB close to agreement for 2020 season

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if the universal DH is indeed included in any agreement to begin the 2020 season then it will give the Red Sox an advantage but only temporarily.