With all but two teams eliminated and the offseason proper fast approaching, focus across much of baseball has shifted to 2022, particularly given an unusually strong free agent class and an uncertain (and volatile) labor situation. As previously noted by MLBTR’s Mark Polishuk, this means the resurfacing of what’s become an annual question: will J.D. Martinez exercise the opt-out clause in his contract with the Red Sox?
This will be Martinez’s third and final opportunity to opt out of the front-loaded five-year/$110MM deal he signed with Boston following the 2017 season. That call was probably never on the table last year, thanks to a less-than-stellar showing (.680 OPS, more than 200 points below his career average) in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. It was a live possibility after 2019, though, when he put together a .304/.383/.557 line on the heels of a monster .330/.402/.629 mark in 2018. He has one year and $19.375MM left on his deal and is essentially a lock to receive a qualifying offer (set for $18.4MM) should he choose to test the market.
Following a bounceback 2021 (.286/.349/.518 in 634 plate appearances) that saw Martinez return to roughly his career averages, the opt-out is again a real option, though it does not come without potential downside. Martinez told WEEI’s Rob Bradford in late September that he’s “right in the middle” on the decision. While it’s entirely possible that his public statements are mere posturing, there are good reasons for Martinez to waffle on a decision that would require him to leave significant guaranteed money on the table without a clear picture of what the market or labor situation are likely to look like. The rumor mill is split on the issue, with Ken Rosenthal suggesting (on the Athletic Baseball Show) that he expects Martinez to exercise the clause while Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe is less convinced, particularly given the uncertain state of the universal DH.
On one hand, the 34-year-old Martinez has an enviable track-record (his .881 career OPS ranks 10th among active players) and proved in 2021 that his bat still has enough pop to make any lineup stronger. Indeed, Martinez’s would-be walk year showed few significant signs of decline; he maintained a K% and BB% (23.7% and 8.7%) roughly in line with both his career marks and MLB averages and a hard-hit rate (defined as the percentage of balls in play with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher) of 49.4% that falls only just below his career mark of 50.8% and well above the MLB average of 38.7%. He also stayed mostly healthy, playing in 148 regular-season and nine postseason games for the Red Sox, though a late-season ankle sprain did keep him out of Boston’s AL Wild Card matchup with the Yankees.
On the other, Martinez’s defensive limitations don’t necessarily limit him to DH-only status but do make it unlikely any team would bank on playing him in the outfield on more than an occasional basis. While he was solid in limited defensive action in 2021 (2 defensive runs saved in 36 games), his career numbers tell a different story (-38 DRS, though 35 of these came in right field), and he hasn’t seen action in the outfield more than 60 times in a season since a poor showing (-18 DRS) across 118 games in right for Detroit in 2016. The probable introduction of the DH to the National League in the new CBA likely expands his market but does little to extend his on-field value.
With significant but mostly one-dimensional production, Martinez’s decision isn’t the easiest. Arguably a top-20 free agent in a strong class, Martinez is likely to receive some multi-year offers, but it’s unlikely many GMs will be eager to give a player with limited defensive value and nearing the back half of his 30s anything remotely approaching the deal he signed with the Red Sox — particularly as it will also cost them a draft pick. Another front-loaded deal is a real possibility, but teams will likely ask Martinez to take a cut in AAV for any significant length.
Accordingly, the question likely comes down to which Martinez values more: his short-term salary or a longer-term guarantee. Will Martinez bet on himself to put up another strong year and hit the market next offseason in a similar situation, or will he try to cash in on his strong 2021 and seek a longer deal?
(Link to poll for Trade Rumors app users)