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:
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:
- A.J. Pollock: 2018
- Patrick Corbin: 2018
- Shelby Miller: 2018-2019
- Chris Owings: 2018-2019
- J.J. Hoover: 2018-2019
- Chris Herrmann: 2018-2019
- T.J. McFarland: 2018-2019
- Taijuan Walker: 2018-2020
- Jake Lamb: 2018-2020
- David Peralta: 2018-2020
- Robbie Ray: 2018-2020
- Nick Ahmed: 2018-2020
- Andrew Chafin: 2018-2020
- Ketel Marte: 2019-2021
- Brandon Drury: 2019-2021
- Archie Bradley: 2019-2021
- Jake Barrett: 2019-2021
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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