José Martínez Returns to the NL Central

The Chicago Cubs added another bat to the lineup on Sunday, acquiring designated hitter José Martínez from the Tampa Bay Rays for two players to be named later.

Chicago, with few spare bats to be had from their increasingly thin upper minors, was one of the many National League teams that rolled into the season without a clear full-time designated hitter option. The team has generally used the position to either rest Willson Contreras without losing his bat or to get Victor Caratini’s lumber in the lineup. Larger active rosters in 2020 have facilitated this, giving the Cubs room to carry Josh Phegley as the “break in case of emergency” catcher; teams are usually quite resistant to having their backup catcher as the designated hitter due to the possibility of injury.

Martínez is a limited player, with his defensive abilities at first base and either corner outfield spot both weak points on his résumé, but it’s unlikely the Cubs use him in a role that involves much use of a glove. Phegley was designated for assignment as the corresponding roster move, another sign Chicago sees Martínez taking over a good chunk of the DH job. He’s had fairly large platoon splits in his short major league career, with a .946 OPS against lefties and a .773 against righties, so he’ll at least grab most, if not all, of the starts against southpaws. Those splits are more even in 2020, but you should take platoon splits over a single month about as seriously as you take Pittsburgh’s 2020 World Series chances (read: not at all).

I find it unlikely Martínez is a Cub in 2021, as there’s a high chance that he’s simply non-tendered this winter. The late-bloomer getting a full-time job at 28 is a great story, but he’s going to be 32 for the 2021 season and aging part-time DHs haven’t been attracting a ton of interest on the market of late. If the designated hitter persists after 2020, the Cubs can likely do better given a full, normal offseason.

The lack of defensive versatility made Martínez an awkward fit for the Rays given that team’s proclivity for role players who can play anywhere on the field. The trade that brought him to Tampa/St. Pete last season was always more about Randy Arozarena, with Martínez more of nice option to have as the team assembled their 2020 roster. There’s been no indication who the players to be named later might be as of yet, but I don’t expect either to be a significant prospect. This trade opens the team to more easily getting Yandy Díaz and Yoshi Tsutsugo in the lineup simultaneously, and if the Rays need a lefty masher at designated hitter, both Mike Brosseau and Hunter Renfroe are hanging around.

Martínez doesn’t dramatically improve the Cubs, but he’s a nice role player addition when looking ahead to the playoffs.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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2 years ago

It is really hard to make it in this league as the short side of a platoon at DH. Anyone looking to acquire him probably thinks they can make him more like his 2018 where his platoon splits were even.

Also, it will be interesting to see if where he goes next if the universal DH goes away (which is not a given but possible). There aren’t that many AL teams looking for a reclamation project at DH, even with a couple years of control.