Red Sox Make Offseason’s Most Obvious Splash

The only thing that could’ve stopped this would’ve been a mystery team, and such a team never came out of the woodwork. From day one, the Red Sox were the favorites to sign J.D. Martinez as a free agent. The Sox just struggled to hit home runs in the absence of David Ortiz, and Martinez went deep a career-high 45 times. Boston had the desire, the money, and the roster space. Oh, sure, the Diamondbacks were in there somewhere, having fallen in love with what Martinez brought to them down the stretch, but they just had the desire and the space, and not so much the funds. They couldn’t have been considered a legitimate threat. And so there was no legitimate threat. Martinez and the Red Sox just needed to accept the circumstances.

Martinez wasn’t going to hold out much longer. But some late give by Boston compelled an actual agreement. The terms: five years, and $110 million. It’s more complicated than that, however, because Martinez can opt out after two years and $50 million, or after three years and $72 million. As such, what we’re seeing is a front-loaded deal that essentially has consecutive multi-year player options. This is more valuable than $110 million, in other words. Given the market, it’s a good deal for Martinez and it’s a good deal for Scott Boras. The final few years are like a safety net.

The Red Sox being a Dave Dombrowski operation, the future can figure itself out when it gets here. We can talk about Martinez’s contract deeper down. For now, for right now, the Red Sox have one of the best hitters in baseball. They’re not going to give the division to the Yankees without a fight.

Simply put, this one’s easy to understand. Martinez’s bat is as good as almost anyone else’s. The Red Sox had money to move, and now, instead of playing Mitch Moreland and Hanley Ramirez, on any given day they can choose one or the other. And since you should never ignore a team’s context, consider where the Red Sox have been. Yeah, Martinez will be a DH, and there’s risk in giving a large contract to someone with limited flexibility. But, you’ve heard about the win curve? The Red Sox have been around that position where extra wins are most valuable. They needed to separate themselves from AL wild-card contenders, while trying to keep up with the Yankees. Martinez won’t add wins to a team that doesn’t need them. In theory, at least, this significantly improves Boston’s chances of reaching the first round. The team was good, and now it is better.

Martinez is a 30-year-old righty. Allow me to present one overview of his profile. Here’s Martinez since he became a regular with the Tigers.

Martinez is a little bit like a one-tool player. I think that plot pretty convincingly makes the case. He’s a well below-average baserunner, and he’s a well below-average defender. There’s a reason he’s going to DH. Martinez, also, strikes out pretty often, and he’s not someone known for his patience. Across many categories, you wouldn’t think that J.D. Martinez is all that special. But, that one tool — when Martinez makes contact, he’s almost unparalleled. It’s not that he hits the ball as hard as Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton. Yet Martinez has mastered the ideal ball in the air. You might say he generates optimal trajectories.

Here’s another plot. This one also compares Martinez to his peers, but we’re looking at only the results of contact. We have overall batted-ball wRC+, and then we have wRC+ to the pull side, up the middle, and going the other way.

On contact, Martinez has been almost the best hitter in baseball. To the pull side, he’s been almost the best hitter in baseball. Up the middle, he’s been almost the best hitter in baseball. And going the other way, he has been the best hitter in baseball. For all of Martinez’s shortcomings, his all-fields power is incredible. He’s a threat to go deep to any part of any park, against any strike and many balls. This is a rare profile to achieve.

If there’s concern — and there’s always concern — it’s that all of Martinez’s statistics are backward-looking. The Red Sox are paying for his next few years, and if Martinez were to lose some of his contact quality, he’d become less valuable in a hurry. David Ortiz aged well, and the same has been true of, say, Edwin Encarnacion, but, based on contact rate, Martinez doesn’t possess the same kind of bat control. Still, it’s not hard to look at Martinez and think about him aging like Nelson Cruz, who remains an elite hitter at 37 despite plenty of swings and misses. Martinez has been very good for multiple seasons in a row.

I know that these posts are usually dedicated to team and player analysis. I’d just like to take a quick break here, though, to acknowledge just how far Martinez has come. He was always expected to sign some contract like this, once he hit free agency. Very little about this outcome is surprising. But, in the bigger picture, everything about this outcome is surprising, because, if you’ll remember, in spring training of 2014, J.D. Martinez was released by the Astros. He was a 26-year-old outfielder with a negative major-league WAR. The Astros shopped Martinez and couldn’t find a trading partner. No one thought very much of him.

Martinez had been outrighted the fall before, as well, and by that point he was in the earlier stages of his total swing overhaul. Martinez took his new swing to winter ball, where he mashed. Then, in spring, the Astros just didn’t give him much of a shot, pre-release. When Martinez subsequently joined the Tigers, he put up a 154 wRC+. Astros left fielders, meanwhile, posted the lowest combined wRC+ in the American League. This is old news by now, and every team makes mistakes, but Martinez was a swing-changer before swing-changing caught on. Maybe he was always going to find his level, I don’t know. But Martinez was just barely clinging to a career, and then he turned his entire life around. Just under four years after being dumped, Martinez has signed for a nine-figure guarantee. Just because there’s also Josh Donaldson and Justin Turner doesn’t make the J.D. Martinez story any less inspiring. He’s one of the reasons why more players are willing to change their swings now in the first place.

Okay, so, back to the deal. The Red Sox are really good now. They have control of Chris Sale and Xander Bogaerts through 2019, and they have control of Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. through 2020. Baseball America just ranked the Sox 24th in their organizational rankings. It’s not that I think the Sox are necessarily headed for a cliff, but they aren’t getting a whole lot younger. This is a team that wants to win now, because it might not be able to compete with the Yankees’ youth. In those same organizational rankings, the Yankees are in second place. They are, you might say, a daunting rival.

Martinez might be around for two years, or he might be around for three, or he might be around for all five. Do not let yourself get tripped up by opt-out clauses again. The Red Sox didn’t sign J.D. Martinez for two years and $50 million. They signed him for two years and $50 million if he’s really good, but if he’s bad or injured or both, then he sticks around. An opt-out clause is player-friendly. Martinez is getting two of them. They provide extra value to the player, while reducing the team’s chance of getting a strong return on investment.

Where it gets tricky is not knowing what it would’ve taken to sign Martinez without any opt-out clauses. It would’ve cost more money, but we don’t know how much. You can say the Red Sox might not want the last three years of the contract anyway, but they would want those years if Martinez were good through 2019. If he’s not so good, well, the Red Sox are stuck. The Mets gave Yoenis Cespedes a three-year contract with an opt-out after year one. Cespedes was very good, and he opted out and re-signed, for an extra two years and $62.5 million. The Tigers gave Justin Upton a six-year contract with an opt-out after year two. Upton was very good, and he just about opted out and then re-signed — with the Angels — for an extra year and $17.5 million. Johnny Cueto’s a guy who didn’t opt out of his contract, last November. So the Giants are on the hook for another four years and $89 million. Everything that comes after an opt-out clause is basically a future salary minimum, assuming a given player doesn’t misread the market too badly.

The opt-out clause is still so widely misunderstood. It’s just a way of including more value in a contract without including more money. Of course, even for a team, there are better and worse potential outcomes, but the best outcomes are just a little less great. It’s almost impossible for the Red Sox to come away from this contract with a steal. That upside isn’t there.

At the end of the day, though, that’s wonk stuff. That’s important wonk stuff, that every club needs to understand, but if the Red Sox just want to spend money, well, they have the money to spend, and Martinez is an elite-level hitter. This is one team that didn’t try to avoid going beyond the competitive-balance-tax threshold, because last year they remained just under. No, Martinez won’t determine the fate of the Red Sox’ season. That’s at least as much up to guys like Betts and Sale and David Price. But Martinez is something the Red Sox didn’t have before. That is, not since Ortiz’s retirement. It hasn’t been all that long since Ortiz stepped away. For Boston, it felt like it’d been forever.

We hoped you liked reading Red Sox Make Offseason’s Most Obvious Splash by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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johansantana17
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johansantana17

It’s crazy that seemingly the only other actual offer was Arizona offering a one-year deal: https://twitter.com/BNightengale/status/965751857376382976

It seems like the Red Sox were hamstrung by offering 5 years/$100 million early in the offseason before everyone knew the free agent market was going to be so slow. You can’t really go lower than your initial offer without really pissing off the other side. JD probably would have just waited it out until mid-season if the Sox had opened substantially lower than that or went lower after seeing the market for him never develop.

This was a weird process. I’m sure Martinez and Boras are disappointed that they got $100m less in total contract value than their initial ask, but when you compare this deal to what other power hitters like Logan Morrison and Mike Moustakas are likely to get, even adjusting for however much better you think JD is, it’s tough to say this is a bad deal for the player given the current market.

OddBall Herrera
Member
OddBall Herrera

I’ve been pretty vocally in the ‘collusion argument has no legs’ camp, but the fact that there wasn’t even a sniff of competition for Martinez seems really weird to me. There were other teams out there with money and need, and to not even check in?

Maybe they did and it wasn’t reported, but once it became public that the Red Sox were at 5/100, as mentioned half of his asking price, there really wasn’t anyone with incentive to jump in? I could even see rebuilding teams like the White Sox biting on the money terms (probably not the opt outs).

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

Although Boras has worked magic before, mega contracts generally require more than one big spender to be in the bidding. Because his arm is busted, teams don’t see him as an everyday left fielder, and so many teams were trying to stay beneath the tax line or couldn’t afford him that it ruled out basically all NL teams. In the AL, the Yankees might have been involved had they not added Stanton, the Rangers and Blue Jays have too many DHs already and don’t seem to think they’re contenders, the Angels have Ohtani, so that leaves…the Astros? The Twins? These aren’t usually teams you expect to be handing out $100+ million deals in free agency (as a side note, I would expect both of those teams to be interested in Corey Dickerson).

It seems like the players who get paid in free agency now are pitchers, because those are the guys who everyone in baseball needs. Finding bidders for hitters is more complicated.

tung_twista
Member
tung_twista

Unless you are planning to compete starting from 2019, signing JD does not make much sense as you would be paying for his 30 and 31 year old season without getting back much from it.
I find it unlikely that the White Sox would aggressively push for their team ETA to be 2019.

OddBall Herrera
Member
OddBall Herrera

I’m not saying teams would outbid the Red Sox, or that any team made more sense than they did, but usually we hear that front offices at least checked in on a player that they even have a bit of interest in, it was dead silence on Martinez except for Boston and Arizona. It’s just weird, the cool market on Hosmer made more sense because he’s a bigger question mark asking for more.

I just don’t remember the last time I saw a player get dubbed a ‘sure thing’ to a particular team at the start of the off-season, then effectively no one bids against that team, then the guy signs there for a huge discount against his (admittedly inflated) asking price. In the past these markets have always developed to include more teams than were originally associated, that’s how we ended up with Pujols in LA and Fielder in Detroit, for example. There were other teams that made sense, some we’re even argued for on this site, no one really even attempted a ‘hey, let’s see if we can steal Martinez while he’s reportedly angry at Boston’?

OddBall Herrera
Member
OddBall Herrera

To be clear, I am not reacting to any team’s failure to outbid the Red Sox. It’s mostly that there’s usually a flurry of ‘X team ‘checked in’ on player Y’ news, we had all the details on who was in contact with Chris Tillman for heaven’s sake. But I can’t think of seeing anything on him other than Boston and Arizona, and the latter casually, for the entire off-season.

The lack of even casual interest just strikes me as odd, particularly as time went on, his asking price went down, and Boston even appeared to stop negotiations at some points. Odd doesn’t mean collusion, obviously, but it’s something noticeable in an already unusual off-season.

rounders
Member
rounders

Auctions that start high tend to turn off bidders interest. Actions that start low create hope. This may have been Dombrowski’s strategy all along.

frangipard
Member
frangipard

The reason you casually “check in” on a player is because you want to make sure that his asking price and/or the offers he’s gotten are roughly in line with what you were expecting. i.e. you’re saying “you’re looking for $____, right? OK, just checking.”

In this case, the player and the leading suitor both made it very clear and very public what they were looking for. There was no point in even looking in unless someone was willing to get up above $100 million. Nobody was.

Dave T
Member
Member
Dave T

Well, if most NL teams take the view that his bad defensive numbers over the past two years are legitimate, then it’s easy to see them deciding that they’re not all that excited about signing Martinez for 5 years and watching those numbers get even worse in the corner outfield. And, between media reports of a Boston offer for 5 years and at least $100 million and Boras’ asking price for Martinez well above that, I can easily see that these NL teams decided it was a waste of time for the front office to spend time trying to close such a large value gap and instead simply moved on to other ideas. As examples, see the Cardinals and Giants trading for Ozuna and McCutchen, respectively. The Diamondbacks seem like an outlier as an NL team with a lot of interest in Martinez.

With AL teams, I don’t see that the list of potential suitors is that long once you consider the money, and I can see various combinations of money and roster construction that cross the Yankees, Angels, Blue Jays, and Astros off that list.

OddBall Herrera
Member
OddBall Herrera

True, I suppose if the argument is that the Red Sox instantly priced their competitors out with their initial offer that would make sense. Also makes it seem like a poor judge of the market by Boston if that’s what happened.

Alan
Member
Alan

If I ran the Red Sox and I knew my evil twin ran the Yankees, I would have made a “preemptive strike” to keep the Yankees out of the talks – perhaps by forcing them over the luxury tax if they were to exceed my offer. I would also not have cared if doing so cost me an extra ten million. But I also think the worst baseball sins are being “penny wise and pound foolish” and “leaving a fantasy auction draft with unspent dollars”.

Ozuna and Cutch were just massive bargains that carried zero long term commitment. The Pirates and Marlins having a yard sale was likely a huge downer on the FA market for outfielders, as were the low prices on outfielders at the 2017 trade deadline.

frangipard
Member
frangipard

No, because we don’t know what other offers might have been had they not done that. They may have overpaid; they may also have preempted a bidding war.

The Duke
Member
The Duke

The Price bidding a couple years ago probably has scared away other teams

Paul22
Member
Paul22

And look what a guy who can run and play defense just got after averaging 2.8 WAR for the last 2 years. Being paid like a 0.5 WAR guy

Alan
Member
Alan

There are two possible explanations – teams are dumb, or teams don’t make contract offers based on a WAR calculation times a dollar amount per WAR. I have a strong opinion as to which is the case, but since it is just an opinion and not an analysis I will keep it to myself.

evo34
Member
evo34

Because two seasons of defensive WAR is an accurate predictor of future WAR? That would be news to me.

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

If you’re referring to Dyson, that’s not a fair characterization. He’s older and he relies on his speed for everything and he just had surgery. And he absolutely must be platooned, which eats up another roster spot. I think there were really good reasons to be hesitant about him.

The Duke
Member
The Duke

It does seem strange that a guy who’s only skill is DH wouldn’t have 20 teams knocking down his door. If ever there was a poster child for collusion JD would have to be it

evo34
Member
evo34

These player opt-out deals are incredibly good for the player. It’s $24m/year for three years plus an insurance policy of $38m if he cannot get a huge payday elsewhere at age 33. I’d take that any day if I was JDM.

MikeD
Member
Member
MikeD

Johansantana17, did they get $100MM less? Boras usually doesn’t start with a specific number; he generally makes the team come with an initial offer he can build from to get the highest market value. The $200M suggestion feels like a media speculation number, one that Boras and Co. had no reason to discourage. The Fangraphs Median Crowdsourse had him at…$110MM. Congrats Fangraphs Median Crowdsource!

I suspect JDM’s side had a 5/100 that never moved. The Red Sox, to close the deal, increased it by $10M, frontloaded it and gave him two opt-outs. Those were likely the late adds to sweeten the deal. If so, it’s a win-win for both sides. A guaranteed $110MM with nearly half of it upfront the first two years, so that limits devaluation further out, and player control with out outs. The Red Sox, meanwhile, get a thumper in his prime at a decent AAV. It’s not a bad thing if he opts out after two years for them either.

johansantana17
Member
johansantana17
MikeD
Member
Member
MikeD

Sure. First, it’s Bob Nightengale. He has a track record that is not particularly good. No matter. That number is out there and will be repeated without verification. It still falls under media speculation, although if JDM and Boras confirm it I’ll be a believer. Beyond that, most deals are going to start high and settle at some point both sides are comfortable. In this case it seems lower than many expected, although I’d suggest it’s one both sides should be happy with.