There may be no hotter free agent this winter than J.D. Martinez. It’s easy to see why. He’s hit about ten million home runs since joining the Diamondbacks and has helped anchor a lineup that’s been a bit up and down over the last few weeks. With his deal expiring in the near future, fans are clamoring for Arizona to bring him back. It seems there’s almost no way that can happen, to be honest. He should command something like $22.5 to $27 million per year on his next deal depending on the length of the contract. Martinez just turned 30, so it’s hard to imagine that this isn’t his prime. This is the peak, it would seem, and while he may keep it up for a few more years, a decline is bound to happen at some point.

And that underscores an important point: you don’t pay for what’s happened, you pay for what will happen in the future. Projecting that isn’t easy, but Martinez seems to have the kinds of skills that should translate fairly well down the road. Speed isn’t a big part of his game, so losing a step won’t ruin him. Maybe he moves to left field in a few years, but that’s okay. He has your traditional “old player skills” in place now — power and on-base ability. Those kinds of skills tend to hold up well as a player ages. The bat could play in left or even first base without any issues. A 4-year deal could work for a higher AAV, or Martinez could look to lock in a longer-term contract for a bit less money per season. A 6-year deal could work, too, depending on the buyer’s penchant for risk. Five years obviously splits the difference and anything longer than six years seems highly unlikely.

So the question becomes money and whether or not the D-backs can afford it. To figure that out, looking at some contracts doled out over the last two winters helps add context. Have a look at some notable free agent position player contracts from the winters of 2016 and 2015:

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And to Martinez specifically, he will have amassed about 10.2 fWAR in the three years leading up to free agency with 3.4 of those wins coming this season (which was shortened by injury). The closest comp from that list is Justin Upton, though Upton was younger than Martinez will be when he signs his next contract. You could argue that he’s also pretty close to Cespedes — a year younger but also a tad less productive. With some inflation factored in, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Martinez get four years and $110 million, five years and $120 million, or six years and 130 million. Those ballpark figures seem to fit and will work for now.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to fit for the Diamondbacks. Going forward, Zack Greinke is owed considerable cash for the next four years beyond this season. It doesn’t look like there’s any way the team gets out from under Yasmany Tomas‘ contract at any point in the next three years. Paul Goldschmidt‘s deal expires in 2019 and you know the team would prefer to work out an extension before that happens. He won’t be giving another home town discount. The team has been noted for having a young core, but that comes with the problem of escalating arbitration salaries. The affordable young core won’t be affordable much longer as the following players will be getting raises in the following years:

Not all of those guys have to be tendered contracts. Hoover, McFarland and Herrmann could all be let go without there being a problem. Another troublesome season for Jake Barrett could put him in jeopardy, too. But core players like Pollock, Corbin, Miller, Owings, Lamb, Walker, Peralta, Ray, Bradley and others are part of the team’s nucleus. They’re all due raises moving forward. Perhaps the team can fill Corbin’s shoes in the rotation with someone like Anthony Banda or Jon Duplantier (depending on how fast he moves), but there’s no immediate fill-in for center field when Pollock’s team control ends. The team may need to spend major cash to try to keep him in Sedona Red or risk turning to the free agent market where they won’t find many deals.

This is all a really long way of saying that if the team wants to keep J.D. Martinez, they’ll have to expand payroll significantly. To keep their core in place, they’re already going to have to expand payroll. You just can’t buy a team for $100 million without supplementing it with a ton of league minimum players, and while these guys were playing at the league minimum a year or two ago, that won’t be the case any longer. The forecast calls for an increase or a tear-down. Perhaps ownership can stomach a modest increase in payroll, but a modest increase would only allow them to keep some of their arbitration-eligible core, not add players like Martinez on $25 million dollar per-year deals. They could try to flip Zack Greinke to open up the cash, but that would leave them a major hole to fill in the rotation without anyone in the organization who can immediately fill those shoes.

There’s just no easy way to make a deal for Martinez happen. Back-loading the deal is an option, but it just kicks the can for another day when these other arbitration-eligible guys will be getting paid more and, maybe, Goldschmidt is on a new deal that’s far more expensive than the one he’s on now. The team could add an opt-out on a five-year deal, hoping that Martinez takes it, but what if he gets hurt and doesn’t? There really are just two roads: open up the checkbook in a major way, or let J.D. walk. He’s said he’s enjoyed his time with the D-backs and wants to play for a winner, making Arizona look fairly attractive. But teams like the Red Sox, the Dodgers and others could afford to absorb the slugger and be competitive, too. With the news that Shohei Otani may be coming to the states this winter, perhaps the focus will shift elsewhere and take a buyer out of the market (though Otani will be cheap — at first). But there will be a market for Martinez and the Diamondbacks, frankly, just don’t have the same ability to sign him that their competition does. Looking at the big picture, it would be wise to start accepting that he’ll be somewhere else in 2018.

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19 Responses to Finding the Cash to Keep J.D. Martinez Won’t Be Easy

  1. coldblueAZ says:

    The team signed a $1.5 billion/20 year deal with Fox. I understand it is graduated, so where’s the money going?

  2. Legen says:

    I’m not convinced the D’bax are willing to give big $ to Lamb. Just my opinion, but not only do we have a trend developing of second half slumps, but he seems like the guy who will disappear in the post season. If I’m wrong then trade him for more pitching. Even in this age it’s pitching and defense that wins baseball games, especially post season, and his defense struggles. They also won’t sign all three of the Owings/Drury/Marte group to big deals. Drury seems to be in the dog house the last couple months.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      The thing is, they don’t have to give big money to any of these guys yet. They’re arbitration eligible, so while their salaries will increase, they won’t be “big money” guys just yet. But when you compile several arbitration salaries that all escalate at the same time, it all adds up to a large cumulative increase. That’s the problem. You can add Martinez, but you have to basically trade and eliminate several arb-eligible guys and that makes for a lot of holes to fill.

  3. Andrew says:

    Beware of the player age 32 cliff. Some good players will see their performance turn good to bad. Some example of these players include Alex gordon and Aaron hill.

    To limit downside risk on good or lower grade players limit contract length to 3 years (4 years if the player age last season is 30 or younger)

    To limit downside risk on elite players limit contract length to 3 years (4 years if the player age last season is 33/ 5 years if the player age last season is 32/ 6 years if the player age last season is 31/ 7 years if the player age last season is 30 or younger)

  4. Larry Person says:

    I think the D’backs can get creative and be able to sign Martinez. Bad contract for bad contract trades is one way. Toronto has several large bad contracts, for example. They also need a SS who can hit. So package Tomas’ bad contract ($45.5M left) with Chris Owings ($3M) to Toronto for Jose Bautista’s bad contract ($37M). Toronto gets their SS and pay less per year for Tomas’ contract. D’backs can then try to sign Martinez. If they do, Bautista has a $0.5M buyout clause. If not, they keep Bautista for 2 years.

  5. Larry Person says:

    Another way for the D’backs to get creative, and I like this idea much less than the other idea, is to package Tomas’ bad contract with a highly desirable Starting Pitcher. Virtually every team wants/needs starting pitching. D’backs package Tomas’ bad contract with Patrick Corbin, who will earn close to $9M next year. Add Tomas’ and Corbin’s salaries together and the D’backs save $22-25M per year, exactly what they need to sign Martinez. It’s a risky move because pitching, including Corbin got the D’backs to the post-season this year.

    The point is that it is not impossible to sign J.D. Martinez.

    • Jeff Wiser says:

      Larry, this is perhaps the only alternative to trading Greinke to keep J.D. But to me, it smacks a bit of Dave Stewart, who’d probably package Tomas with Jon Duplantier and Pavin Smith to move him. The contract is so bad that I’m not sure adding a season of Corbin is enough to find a taker. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. If someone were to take that in return, my guess is that you still have to take a pretty bad deal in return. And doing that doesn’t change the math very much. You’re right, there’s a way to do it. I’m just not sure the way it could happen would be good for the organization as a whole. This will be incredibly fun to follow.

  6. Larry Person says:

    The D’backs have a formidable arbitration eligible list for the next 3 years or more. In fact Delgado was left off this list, he’s Arb 3 this off-season. So the D’backs have 4 Arb. 3 players, 5 Arb. 2 players, and 5 Arb. 1 players. Then add the last 4 on your list for next year, when they’ll be Arb. 1. That’s formidable, almost unprecedented. But, I’m looking at “only” a $20M payroll increase for all these players combined next year, so it’s not totally devastating to keep most of this core. Plus, everybody forgets that $10M of Greinke’s salary is deferred each year through 2021, which must then be paid in chunks of $12.5M per year for the five years 2022-2026. So, whenever we talk D’backs payroll, it is always, actually $10M less per year. Right now, keeping almost the whole team intact, the payroll is right at $100M for 2018. Adding Martinez would bump it to ~$125M, which probably doesn’t work…unless the D’backs win the WS and invest the extra income from that post-season run into player salaries next year(s).

  7. Anonymous says:

    You guys don’t have a lier jet on this site we can sell to re sign JD?

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