When the 2021-22 offseason commenced, Nick Martinez wasn’t even on the radar for most MLB fans. The right-hander had stumbled through an uninspiring four-year run with the Rangers from 2014-17, and while a big showing in Japan put him back on the radar of MLB clubs, it was still a shock to see him sign the 14th-largest contract of any pitcher last offseason. Martinez not only secured an eye-opening four-year term and $25.5MM guarantee from the Padres — he was also promised the opportunity to opt out of his contract after each season of the deal.
It’s an upside-laden contract for the player. Annual opt-outs of that nature tend to go to coveted free agents settling for shorter-term deals than they might otherwise prefer (e.g. Carlos Correa in Minnesota). It’s not an entirely new concept — Scott Kazmir got that treatment from the Dodgers as far back as 2015 when signing his three-year, $48MM deal — and it’s one that Padres president of baseball ops has now used to lure in a pair of players he played a role in signing and developing during his time with Texas; Jurickson Profar’s three-year, $21MM contract also contained an opt-out after each of the first two seasons.
Martinez’s four-year deal pays him a $2MM signing bonus and a $4MM salary in 2022. All three of his player options are valued at $6.5MM, and he’d receive a $1.5MM buyout if he decided to turn an option down and test free agency. In other words, Martinez’s upcoming option effectively is a net $18MM decision. The signing bonus, 2022 salary and option buyout are all but banked. The question for him is one of whether he can top $18MM in free agency this winter.
It’s fair to question whether that can be called a given. On the surface, Martinez’s 3.22 ERA in 100 1/3 innings has to be considered a roaring success. He entered the 2022 season with a career 4.77 ERA in 415 1/3 innings, all coming in that prior run with the Rangers — one that concluded with consecutive ERAs north of 5.50.
At the same time, Martinez hasn’t exactly dominated opponents. His 20.9% strikeout rate is below the 22.3% league average, while his 8.6% walk rate is ever so slightly higher than the 8.2% league average. Martinez induces grounders at an above-average clip (46.7% compared to 42.2%) but also surrenders home runs more frequently than the average pitcher (1.25 HR/9 compared to 1.10 HR/9).
The role — or rather, the roles — that Martinez has filled this year don’t necessarily help his cause, either. He opened the year as the Padres’ fifth starter but was part of a six-man rotation by May and was moved to the bullpen full-time in mid-June, after 10 solid but unspectacular starts (52 1/3 innings, 4.30 ERA, 20.4 K%, 11.7 BB%).
In the bullpen, things have gone better. Martinez has tallied 48 1/3 innings in relief and worked to a 2.05 ERA. His 21.5% strikeout rate in the ’pen is only moderately higher than it was out of the rotation, but to his credit, Martinez’s 4.7% walk rate as a reliever is miles better than it was coming out of the rotation. (Whether teams deem that to be sustainable is another open question.) He’s picked up eight saves and six holds for the Friars, but early on, the majority of his work came in lower-leverage situations. Even three of those eight saves were of the three-inning variety in long relief. He’s been used in later, higher-leverage spots as the summer has worn on, but Martinez will likely finish the season having spent only a couple months working in the critical leverage spots for which teams tend to pay top dollar.
There are other elements to consider, too. Martinez rates well in terms of his overall average exit velocity, yielding just an 86.6 mph average to his opponents. That checks into the 87th percentile among MLB pitchers. He also boasts above-average spin on his fastball and curveball alike, and Martinez has excelled at inducing chases on pitches off the plate. However, Martinez’s 37.2% hard-hit rate is barely better than the league-average, and the 8.2% barrel rate he’s yielded is well shy of league average (32nd percentile). Basically, when he does allow contact, he’s been much more prone to loud contact than one would expect when looking the mean results.
Martinez’s case is an interesting one. He didn’t thrive in a rotation role, even when facing hitters the first time through the order (.282/.311/.447). As is typically the case, those numbers worsened the second and third time he faced an opponent in a game. He’s been excellent the first trip through the lineup as a reliever, however (.201/.261/.289), even though he didn’t completely overhaul his pitch arsenal when shifting to bullpen work. At a time when relievers and even some starters are gravitating toward focusing on two plus pitches, Martinez’s approach is uncommon: he’s the rare reliever who deploys a five-pitch mix (four-seamer, cutter, sinker, curve, changeup).
MLBTR’s Anthony Franco wrote a few weeks ago that Martinez appears unlikely to opt out of the remaining three years on his contract, as it’s a stretch to envision him topping that remaining guarantee. There’s merit to that line of thinking. Martinez was unexciting in a brief run as a starter, has impressed but not dominated as a reliever, and doesn’t have the type of elite velocity, spin rate or whiff rate that serve as the portent to a breakout.
On the spectrum of outcomes, his 2022 season hasn’t been a best-case scenario but has been better than average. A 90th percentile outcome or better might have seen Martinez play a prominent role and pitch toward the top of the San Diego rotation; giving 10 serviceable starts before moving to the ’pen and slowly climbing into a leverage role has to rank somewhere in the 60th to 75th percentile of outcomes. The Padres are surely happy with the year-one results.
Martinez’s decision is made difficult because the very nature of the contract he signed sat outside the norms of conventional contract structures for typical MLB free agents. Generally speaking, free agents very rarely sign three- and four-year deals with average annual values in the $6-7MM range. Even back-end starters will crack the $8-10MM range on one- and two-year deals. It’s not uncommon to see a setup reliever sign a multi-year deal in this AAV range, but most recent examples have been of the two-year variety.
If Martinez hopes to beat the net $18MM on his contract, he’d need a team to value him in the $10MM range over a two-year span or an $8-9MM range over a three-year span. In the case of the former, that’d likely mean a team believing he can function as a starter on a full-time basis. The latter structure is typically reserved for some of the market’s most highly desirable relievers (e.g. Kendall Graveman’s three-year deal with the White Sox, Joe Kelly’s three-year deal with the Dodgers). It’s hard to include Martinez in that same category.
Still, there’s a logical disconnect between the idea that the market produced a $25.5MM guarantee for Martinez a year ago, when he was a total wild card, but might not produce better than an $18MM guarantee now that he’s proven himself capable of providing legitimate value to a contending MLB club. The source of that disconnect may simply be the allure of the unknown. There may yet be room for Martinez to take his game to another level, but some of the perceived upside stemming from the 1.60 ERA, 25% strikeout rate and 6.9% walk rate he posted in his final NPB campaign has perhaps dwindled. That’s not to say he’s not a valuable big league pitcher — he certainly has been — but now that he’s more of an established commodity, that same upside might not be baked into a potential new contract.
Suffice it to say, Martinez’s opt-out looks like something of a borderline case. He can fill multiple roles, has shined out of the ’pen, held his own in the rotation but hasn’t dominated opponents at any step along the way. He’d need to be confident teams will view him as at least $9-10MM per year pitcher in order to opt out, because even though a $7-8MM AAV over a three-year term would be a win for him, that’s tougher to come by when you’re selling your age-32 through age-34 seasons.
If he sticks with the Padres, they’ll be happy to have him. Mike Clevinger and Sean Manaea are free agents at season’s end, and the Friars traded MacKenzie Gore to the Nationals in the Juan Soto deal. Their 2023 rotation depth is not as sound as this year’s was and is. In the bullpen, each of Robert Suarez, Pierce Johnson and Craig Stammen can become a free agent. Martinez provides some valuable substance to both groups. The $18MM question is whether that value is significant enough that he’ll again test his luck on the open market.
We can close this one out with a poll…