As of press time, J.D. Martinez, the biggest bat available this offseason, remains unsigned. In any normal offseason, we could chalk this up to Scott Boras slow-playing the market until he gets the deal he wants for his client. Even in this abnormally slow offseason, we probably should still chalk it up to Boras playing his normal games — although holding out until spring training, as has been reported by Jon Heyman, would represent an unusual gambit. Heyman reports that offers are currently in the $120 to $150 million range, with Boras seeking an additional $30 to $60 million on top of that upper figure. As for how much Martinez will be worth over the next five to seven years, there is a wide range of possibilities there, too.
At the beginning of the offseason, when Carson Cistulli crowdsourced deals for the top-50 free agents, respondents were underwhelmed by Martinez, seeing a five-year deal worth $110 million. Looking at projections, that seems reasonable. Generous, even. Steamer projects Martinez for a 130 wRC+ for 2018, right in line with his career average. Take away a few runs from below-average baserunning and a bunch more for subpar defense in a corner-outfield spot, and it turns into a 2.7 WAR at age 30 next season. Now 30, Martinez is more likely than not to be entering the decline phase of his career. Starting with his projected 2.7 WAR for 2018 and adjusting for age-related decline thereafter makes a $100 million contract seem almost outrageous.
Do you know what else seems a bit outrageous, though? Projecting a player with a 148 wRC+ over his last 2,143 plate appearances and a 166 wRC+ at 29 to decline so dramatically at 30 years of age. Dave Cameron believed Martinez would get a contract more representative of his recent performance, predicting six years and $156 million. Martinez is certainly a great hitter now — only Aaron Judge and Mike Trout posted higher wRC+ marks than Martinez last season — but his prospects for future production come with some uncertainty. Martinez hasn’t been a model of health in his career. As he enters his 30s, his risk for injury will only get worse.
To try and determine how well Martinez will hit in the future, it’s necessary to establish how well Martinez will hit right now. If he is only a 130 wRC+ right now, it is going to make it very difficult for Martinez to provide $100 million of on-field production or more. Given reports that suggest Martinez will easily eclipse $100 million — even with the market continuing to unfold at glacial pace — it seems likely that his projection understates his current expected performance. To that end, I looked for some comps for Martinez.
To start, I considered a broad range of hitters regardless of position, identifying every hitter since 1947 with a career wRC+ between 120 and 140 through their age-29 season and a plate-appearance total within 20% of Martinez’s lifetime mark. I then narrowed the list by removing catchers and looking at players who played mostly full seasons at 29 years old, putting up at least a 140 wRC+ during that year. The list yielded 10 names. Here’s how those 10 players performed in their age-29 seasons.
I opted not to control for WAR because I was mainly interested in the bat, but if Martinez had played a full season in 2017, was average on the bases, and had provided just slightly below-average defense, his WAR would be right in line with the rest of the group. In any event, the offensive level is pretty close.
Here’s how those same players performed overall between ages 27 and 29:
Again, the average figures here are pretty similar to Martinez’s own numbers during the same timespan, his baserunning and defense holding him back slightly from the group’s overall value. At this point, it probably should be mentioned that several of the players above were active in an era during which age didn’t matter as much in terms of a decline, with one player above admitting to PED use and another implicated of doing the same.
As for projecting a 2018 line, here is how those players performed at 30 years of age:
The average wRC+ of this 10-man sample is a decent bit better than Martinez’s own projection for 2018, but with slightly below-average baserunning and roughly average defense for an outfield corner, we arrive at something like a four-win player. Even with bad defense and slightly worse baserunning, the 136 wRC+ would add about half a win to Martinez’s projections.
Let’s go a year further and see how these players did the following season.
Overall, we see no drop-off at all moving from age 30 to age 31, which is a good sign for Martinez. We do see some attrition. At 30, for example, Mike Epstein experienced a lost season. The next year, Bernard Gilkey gets added to the mix. This trend actually continues. Epstein was out of baseball at 32. At 33, six of the 10 were replacement level. David Ortiz rebounded at 34, so only half the players were replacement level the following season. By 35, though, three players were out of baseball and two more provided no value. By 36, Ortiz was the only competent hitter left, though Stargell would have a couple more good seasons at later ages.
This is what the averages look like overall, with any missing season for wRC+ given a mark of 60.
So what does that look like in terms of a contract with a typical aging pattern? Like this:
|2018||30||3.8||$9.0 M||$34.2 M|
|2019||31||3.3||$9.5 M||$31.2 M|
|2020||32||2.8||$9.9 M||$27.8 M|
|2021||33||2.3||$10.4 M||$24.0 M|
|2022||34||1.8||$10.9 M||$19.7 M|
|2023||35||1.3||$10.9 M||$14.2 M|
|2024||36||0.8||$10.9 M||$8.8 M|
Value: $9M/WAR with 5.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)
If you want to take the contract down to six years, then the number comes back at $150 million. Scott Boras might be looking for that extra year, but that year shouldn’t tack on another $25 million to $30 million. Martinez is unlikely to make up for that last year with his production in the first few.
Keep in mind, I’ve used only hitting comps to arrive at these numbers. For the most part, baserunning and fielding do not favor Martinez. We don’t have to ignore those two aspects of the game to get J.D. Martinez his $150 million, but we have to discount how bad the numbers make Martinez look. He can be a below-average baserunner and defender and still return a $150 million investment. He just can’t be as bad as his numbers last season or over the course of his career indicate. I think it is fair to expect two more really good seasons from Martinez. After that, the range of outcomes is enormous. Expecting good production in 2020 is a risk that any signing club is going to have to take.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.