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Is the risk worth the reward with J.D. Martinez?

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 12/14/2017 By Alex Speier

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – It’s a common conclusion shared by many executives: The Red Sox will sign free agent outfielder J.D. Martinez. That expectation is not a guarantee and it doesn’t mean it *will* happen, but several executives consider such an outcome likely, if not inevitable.

But many of those who express such a view nonetheless follow it with a question.

“How many years do you think he’ll get?”

Martinez turned 30 near the end of last season. Executives believe he’ll get at least a five-year deal – just as Justin Upton (born four days after Martinez in 1987) did in reaching a five-year, $106 million deal to stay with the Angels in the days following the season. That would take him through his age-34 season. The real question is whether he’ll get six years (a deal that would take him to his age-35 campaign) or seven (age-36).

Those additional years are the ones that give pause. The landscape of free agency is changing. At a time when players in their early-20s are taking over the game in a fashion unseen in decades, the appetite to pay players into their mid-30s – let alone their late-30s – is disappearing.

J.D. Martinez © AP Photo/Matt Marton J.D. Martinez

That shift in the willingness to pay players is a reflection of the demographics of production in the game. Last year, there were plenty of productive players between the age of 30 and 34, with a total of 45 players in that age bracket having produced 2.0 Offensive Wins Above Replacement (in the calculations of Baseball-Reference.com). That cluster of players is at the high end of what the game has seen from players in the last decade.

On the other hand, there were just two players last year – Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre – who produced an Offensive WAR of 2.0 or greater last year at the age of 35 or over, easily the smallest group of offensively productive players in that age bracket in the last decade.

Aging less gracefully?Age of players who produced 2.0 Offensive Wins Above Replacement, 2008-17
YearAges 30-34Ages 35+
2017452
2016367
2015387
20144611
2013448
20123811
20112811
20104012
20093713
2008409
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference.com

Why is this happening? Maybe it’s a one-year blip. Perhaps the flood of power pitching is magnifying declines in bat speed, pushing older players out of the game faster. Or perhaps teams have simply arrived at the point where, if they have a young player who should be on an upward career trajectory who projects to offer production comparable to a player in his 30s who is past his prime, they’re making more aggressive bets on the players who are making the big league minimum.

There are, of course, exceptions to the pattern. The Red Sox saw David Ortiz spend his age-40 season as the best hitter in the American League. Beltre remains terrific. While Carlos Beltran struggled at age 40 in his final season, he was excellent as a 39-year-old in 2016.

Yet those players are exceptions. And so, as the Red Sox – who, according to multiple major league sources, met with Martinez last night – contemplate what kind of contract offer they can stomach, they must determine whether or not Martinez (coming off a .303/.376/.690 season with 45 homers) represents a similar outlier that would at least somewhat diminish the risk associated with the back end of his deal.

Martinez is meticulous in his daily routine, tremendously committed to maintaining his physical conditioning, and obsessive about the craft of hitting. Those traits, suggested Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo, will play well as Martinez moves through the life of his next deal.

“You have to look at the body and the mind and the soul and if anybody would have predicted that Pete Rose would have played until he’s 45 when he was 25, they would have said you’re crazy, as hard as he played,” said Lovullo. “I know that there’s some very unique set of circumstances and I’ve seen how hard J.D. works. I know that he’s got a very healthy, strong body. That’s information that I get to see inside of the clubhouse, so I know that he’s the type of guy that could last the length of a long-term contract.”

It’s telling that the Diamondbacks, who benefited immensely from Martinez’s explosive performance from the time they acquired him in mid-July, are considering trade offers for Zack Greinke in order to free payroll for a possible run at retaining Martinez. (While major league sources confirm that Arizona is listening to offers on the righthander, they characterize a deal for him as unlikely.) In their case, seeing is believing when it comes to the merits of a long-term deal for Martinez.

But how long? Will the Red Sox blow past the point of relative five-year comfort to add Martinez for six or even seven years – even at a time when overall game trends suggest that few players will offer meaningful return at such an age?

Time will tell. While the Red Sox clearly want Martinez, at a time when it’s not clear that there are other obvious suitors for his services (St. Louis traded for Marcell Ozuna, likely taking them away from Martinez; the Giants don’t have a DH role to offer Martinez on the back end of a deal; the Diamondbacks don’t have the resources to carry Greinke and Martinez; the Yankees don’t have an opening in their outfield/DH equation), they appear to have settled into a waiting game with Martinez and agent Scott Boras, trying to resist the additional years that would cause them to twist uncomfortably.

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