FORT MYERS, Fla. — J.D. Martinez isn’t such a large human that he grabs your attention simply by standing up. He also isn’t a former first-round draft pick who, at age 18, was hyped as the next Alex Rodriguez.
But here’s something else Martinez is not: a consolation prize.
Go ahead and rip the Boston Red Sox for being so desperate to fill a key position they had to pay nine figures for a free agent. It happened two years ago when they signed David Price for seven years and $ 217 million and again Monday evening when they finally — at long last — agreed with Martinez on a five-year, $ 110 million contract that includes an opt-out after two years. Neither deal would have been necessary if only the Sox hadn’t low-balled erstwhile ace Jon Lester in 2015 or taken a pass last winter on Edwin Encarnacion as a $ 60 million middle-of-the-order successor to David Ortiz.
So much for learning from mistakes.
But don’t presume the Red Sox are settling for Martinez because they were unable to get Giancarlo Stanton to waive his no-trade clause or produce the upper-level pitching prospects the Baltimore Orioles want in exchange for Manny Machado. Martinez might not look as powerful as Stanton or be as recognizable, at least to casual fans, as Machado. But if you don’t think he’s every bit as fearsome a slugger — and maybe even a better pure hitter — than those two, well, you haven’t been paying attention.
For one thing, Martinez is fresh off a career-best season in which he hit 45 home runs, 29 of which came in a 62-game binge after being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks. To put that into context, Mookie Betts led the starving-for-power Red Sox with 24 homers — all season.
Martinez, 30, isn’t some overnight sensation, either. Matter of fact, he’s one of only two players to hit .300 with at least 125 home runs and a .550 slugging percentage since 2014. You’ve probably heard of the other guy. His name is Mike Trout.
Still not sold? Hard-to-please Red Sox fans can think of Martinez as a latter-day Ortiz, an intelligent hitter who blossomed in the big leagues only after getting released. The Houston Astros cut ties with Martinez before the 2014 season, just as the Minnesota Twins did with Ortiz 12 years earlier.
In short, Martinez is exactly the player the Red Sox need to keep pace with the Stanton- and Aaron Judge-powered New York Yankees in the division and the loaded Astros in the American League.
It took at least two months longer than industry insiders expected, in a historically sluggish free-agent market, for the sides to agree on terms of a deal that seemed all but inevitable when the offseason began. But better late than never. Rookie manager Alex Cora can stop worrying about the Ortiz-shaped hole in the middle of a lineup that produced the fewest homers in the American League last season. With Martinez, the Red Sox’s Opening Day lineup March 28 at Tropicana Field could look like this:
LF Andrew Benintendi
1B Hanley Ramirez/Mitch Moreland
3B Rafael Devers
SS Xander Bogaerts
2B Eduardo Nunez
C Christian Vazquez
CF Jackie Bradley Jr.
Given time, Martinez might even emerge as a Stanton-sized draw for a franchise that needs an infusion of star power to increase its market share after falling behind the Patriots and, lately, the Celtics in sports-obsessed Boston. For now, though, just check out testimonials from folks who have gotten an up-close look at Martinez the past four years.
“Oh man, just his approach, watching what he did before the game, it’s impressive,” says Price, Martinez’s teammate with the Detroit Tigers in 2014-15. “Kind of taking [Miguel Cabrera’s] approach, hitting everything to right field, and [if] a pitcher throws you a breaking ball in the zone, you’ll still be on time for that. He really took a couple pages out of Miggy’s book and incorporated his own swing into it, and he’s reaped the benefit.”
How J.D. Martinez became one of MLB’s most sought-after sluggers. Lauber »
And from Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo: “He’s as good a hitter, on and off the field, that I’ve been around. He obviously can walk up to the plate prepared and execute, which is a very impressive thing. But the thing that people don’t see is what he does behind the scenes. There’s notes in a notebook, there’s video and studying, there’s tendencies and habits, there’s constant practice and perfection of the swing. And it translates.”
The Diamondbacks wanted to keep Martinez, so they brought on his personal hitting coach as a consultant. But not even the presence of Robert Van Scoyoc, the instructor who helped remake Martinez’s swing four offseasons ago and became such a close friend that Martinez was in his wedding party, could top the Red Sox’s offer; not with Arizona still owing $ 138.5 million to pitcher Zack Greinke and hoping to keep All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt from fleeing via free agency after the 2019 season.
Ordinarily, there would have been a more robust market for a player of Martinez’s ability. But with Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson and Machado slated to head next winter’s free-agent megaclass, most teams were less willing to spend money this time around. That’s less a reflection on Martinez and more an indication of rotten timing.
There are potential downsides, of course. Martinez has taken more than 500 at-bats in a season only once (2015 with the Tigers) because of a series of injuries. Last year, he missed the Tigers’ first 33 games with a lisfranc sprain in his right foot. The Red Sox have also been burned by recent deals with marquee free agents, getting little or no return on Carl Crawford (seven years, $ 142 million) and Pablo Sandoval (five years, $ 95.5 million).
And despite his preference for playing the outfield, Martinez will have to get used to a full-time designated hitter role. The Red Sox aren’t inclined to break up their Killer B’s — Benintendi, Bradley and Betts represent one of the best defensive outfields in the majors — especially considering Martinez is a below-average right fielder and Fenway Park’s spacious right field is particularly challenging.
“He’ll adapt to any role,” agent Scott Boras said in December.
With the Red Sox, Martinez’s role is to mash, plain and simple. For the past four years, few players have done it better.
That’s a fact. No consolation required.