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J.D. Martinez aims to get what he wants, come hell, high water or even spring training.
With pitchers and catchers due to start reporting Feb. 12, the Major League Baseball offseason is at a point when spring training is no longer some shimmering blob on the horizon. It’s right there, and that means the regular season can’t be far behind.
Yet Martinez is one of many top-shelf free agents who still doesn’t have a job. That leaves him with two options: start sweating or keep cool.
According to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, he’s choosing the latter.
Fresh off a year in which he led MLB with a .690 slugging percentage and slammed 45 home runs in only 119 games with the Detroit Tigers and Arizona Diamondbacks, Martinez is said by “Miami acquaintances” to be willing to hold out for a suitable contract, even if it means staying unemployed into spring training.
Mind you, chances are this is simply Martinez’s camp attempting to strike a spark meant to light a fire under his suitors.
As it is, Heyman and Bob Nightengale of USA Today have reported the 30-year-old slugger has a five-year offer from the Boston Red Sox. The former suggests Martinez may also have another five-year offer elsewhere.
Trouble is, his offers are said to max out at $150 million. Although that’s a big sum that doubles as a sensible depiction of where his market is at, it’s well short of the $200 million price tag Martinez and agent Scott Boras are rumored to have wanted from the beginning.
It’s tempting to compare the situation to the ending of The Thing, wherein (spoilers) Kurt Russell and Keith David agree to just sit and wait for a while to see what happens. The major difference is the encroaching threat. Rather than the Antarctic winter, it’s the bright sunshine of Florida and Arizona.
To this end, Martinez’s willingness to hold out until spring training is headline news because that’s not a tactic high-profile free agents tend to prefer.
Per MLB Trade Rumors, there have been only 11 contracts signed in February and March that were worth even as much as $20 million. James Shields’ four-year, $75 million deal with the San Diego Padres in February 2015 is the overall high mark. That’s, at best, half of what Martinez is hoping for.
Not that anyone should be surprised. By the time spring training rolls around, teams typically have all the leverage. Most roster needs have been filled, leaving outstanding free agents with few potential places to turn to. Plus, there’s the lure for players to get in some games and get ready for the season.
The danger of choosing to play hardball into spring training is best epitomized by what happened to some of the top free agents on the 2013-2014 market.
Among those who went into February still looking for work were Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew, Kendrys Morales, Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett and Kendrys Morales. Jimenez landed a four-year, $50 million deal from the Baltimore Orioles, but nobody else got better than a two-year deal. Drew and Morales even had to settle for one-year deals well after the regular season was underway.
Granted, the qualifying offer was a factor in this. That’s something Martinez doesn’t have to worry about. The July trade that sent him from Detroit to Arizona barred him from receiving a qualifying offer, thus sparing him the disadvantage of being tied to draft-pick compensation.
Still, he’s attempting to do something that is optimistically described as risky and pessimistically described as reckless. If he waits until spring training only to find even worse contract offers than the ones in front of him right now, everyone will be able to say “told you so.”
However, it may be just as likely Martinez will walk away happy in the end.
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Although there’s no real precedent for what he’s willing to attempt, there’s also the reality this offseason in general is unprecedented. It’s extraordinary that players like Martinez, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas remain unsigned. And they are just the tip of a sizable iceberg, as more than 100 free agents are still without clubs.
The longer they go unsigned, the longer big needs are going to be unfilled. That alone creates the possibility of there being a relatively normal free-agent marketplace, even amid the routine stretching, light jogging and soft tossing of spring training.
Then there’s the possibility teams that have been patient could have the tables turned on them. Some are undoubtedly trying to use the encroachment of spring training to leverage free agents into taking discounts. Will these teams give in if players dig in their heels and use the forthcoming regular season to leverage more lucrative deals?
Martinez, in particular, is uniquely positioned to succeed with such a strategy.
Between the year he just had and the overall elite offensive numbers he boasts since 2014, he’s a much hotter commodity than any of the 2013-2014 cautionary tales.
“He’s a superstar talent,” Boras said in November, according to Nick Piecoro of azcentral. “He’s done things that few players have done.”
For at least two of his rumored suitors, adding a bat of Martinez’s caliber is more of a necessity than a luxury. The Red Sox badly need to inject some home runs into an offense that produced only 168 of them in 2017, the fewest in the American League. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, would be bringing back Martinez to fill big shoes that are empty.
In similar boats are the San Francisco Giants, who finished dead last in MLB with 128 homers last year, and the Toronto Blue Jays, who have to replace Jose Bautista.
No other free agent comes close to offering the kind of offensive thunder Martinez could give these teams (and whatever mystery teams may be lurking). Among the trade targets who could, one has already been moved (Giancarlo Stanton), one almost certainly isn’t available (Josh Donaldson) and another probably isn’t available at a reasonable price (Manny Machado).
As long as this remains the case, Martinez has a few reasonable excuses to wait as long as he likes. Still another could arise if a big slugger suffers a serious injury during spring training or even before then (i.e., Victor Martinez in 2012).
The waiting game will continue, but it’s not difficult to see why Martinez is willing to gut it out. For him, the ticking of the clock isn’t necessarily the turning of the screw.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.