Jose Martinez was the Cardinals’ second-best hitter in 2018, he has a .309/.372/.478 slash line over 915 career MLB plate appearances, and he isn’t eligible to hit free agency until after the 2022 season. On most clubs, Martinez would be considered a valuable building block — in St. Louis, he has already become an afterthought. Paul Goldschmidt has taken over as the Cards’ everyday first baseman, and with Marcell Ozuna in left field and Dexter Fowler slated for right field duty and hoping for a rebound, Martinez is now a man without a position, making him an intriguing potential trade chip as the Cardinals continue their offseason business.
Of course, there’s a good case to be made that St. Louis might not want to deal Martinez at all. Since Goldschmidt is only under contract through 2019, the Cards may want to keep Martinez in the fold as long-term insurance if case Goldschmidt leaves in free agency. Secondly, Martinez’s inexpensive pre-arbitration salary makes him a good asset for St. Louis to have as a bench bat. It’s easy to imagine the Cardinals hanging onto Martinez for late-game pinch-hitting duty, or the occasional spot start should Goldschmidt, Ozuna, or Fowler require a day off. Plus, should Fowler’s struggles continue next season, Martinez could find himself getting more regular playing time in right field.
There’s also the fact that the Cardinals seem to have already completed their biggest winter additions. After landing Goldschmidt and Andrew Miller, the Cards’ remaining needs are relatively minor — a backup catcher, a left-handed bench bat, and perhaps another bullpen arm. Any of these could be addressed in free agency rather than by trading Martinez.
With those arguments in mind, let’s now look at the case for why St. Louis might want to swing a deal. For starters, trading Martinez now could be a sell-high move. He was an unheralded prospect, who bounced around three other organizations (White Sox, Braves, Royals) before landing with the Cardinals, and Martinez didn’t really show much at the plate until 2014, when he was a 25-year-old on Atlanta’s high-A ball team. Since Martinez turned 30 last July, he doesn’t really project as a long-term piece for the Cards.
There’s also the fact that “man without a position” is something of an apt description for Martinez even when he was getting everyday at-bats, as he has been a below-average defensive player whenever he has played around the diamond. In 637 2/3 innings as an outfielder, Martinez has a -10.6 UZR/150 and minus-13 Defensive Runs Saved. He hasn’t fared much better even at the less-stressful position, posting minus-6 DRS and a -2.8 UZR/150 over 936 1/3 frames at first base. While Martinez’s defense isn’t really an issue if he’s only limited to a spot start, or an inning or two at the end of a game after a pinch-hitting appearance, his poor glovework makes him a liability should the Cards actually need him for an extended fill-in capacity in case of injury.
The Rays and Dodgers have both reportedly shown some interest in acquiring Martinez, who makes some sense on either roster. Los Angeles is looking to add some right-handed pop to its mostly left-handed lineup, though the Dodgers could be aiming for bigger-ticket additions (such as J.T. Realmuto or A.J. Pollock) than Martinez. It’s possible that Tampa’s recent acquisition of Yandy Diaz could have taken them out of the Martinez hunt, as Diaz is another right-handed hitting complement to Ji-Man Choi in the first base/DH mix and Diaz also offers more defensive flexibility.
The Cardinals also tried to use Martinez as a trade chip to land Will Smith from the Giants, though it doesn’t appear San Francisco had much interest. While the Giants need corner outfield help, Martinez would be a poor fit in the spacious AT&T Park outfield, and first base is already spoken for in the form of Brandon Belt (plus, Buster Posey handles first when the Giants spell him behind the plate).
We’ve already seen some significant action within the first base market this winter, as the likes of Goldschmidt, Edwin Encarnacion, Carlos Santana (twice), Justin Bour, C.J. Cron, Matt Adams, and Steve Pearce have all been traded or signed with new teams. Daniel Murphy will also be serving mostly as a first baseman with the Rockies, which addresses arguably the most glaring first base hole on any contending team.
It doesn’t leave much in the way of a wide-open trade market for Martinez, particularly since NL teams could be less likely to make a push given his lack of defensive prowess. On the plus side, his four years of team control could attract rebuilding clubs as well as contenders.
The Royals or Tigers make some sense as a Martinez suitor, though K.C. has a lot of right-handed hitters already and Detroit has youngster Christin Stewart slated for some DH duty due to his own defensive shortcomings. Martinez’s low price tag could appeal to the Mariners as they continue to cut costs, though the Cardinals would likely have to bring a third team into the trade to acquire Encarnacion, who obviously isn’t a fit in St. Louis with Goldschmidt on board. The White Sox could use Martinez as a part-time outfielder and platoon partner with Yonder Alonso in 2019, with an eye towards a more regular role if one or both of Alonso and Jose Abreu depart in free agency after the season. The Astros have been reportedly checking around for first base/DH help, though with Yuli Gurriel and Tyler White already provided right-handed bats, Martinez could be overkill.
Returning to the National League, one interesting option could be Goldschmidt’s former team. The Diamondbacks are planning to give Jake Lamb some time at first base this season, though Lamb is coming off a rough 2018 and didn’t even hit left-handed pitching well even when he was in good form. If the D’Backs added Martinez to the first base mix, that would allow them to situationally shuffle Lamb to third base, Eduardo Escobar to second, and Ketel Marte potentially to center field. While Martinez-to-Arizona makes sense on paper, however, one would imagine the idea was already floated between the D’Backs and Cardinals when they were discussing the Goldschmidt trade. While that doesn’t necessarily mean the Diamondbacks wouldn’t pursue Martinez in a future deal later this winter, Martinez’s non-inclusion in that initial trade could indicate some lack of interest on Arizona’s part.