The Sunday Baseball Column: How should we view J.D. Martinez?

Rob Bradford
October 06, 2019 - 7:53 am
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What Scott Boras said about his client shouldn't have surprised anyone.

"When you go back and look at the last three years, this is one of the greatest hitters in Major League Baseball," the agent said on the "Big-Time Baseball" podcast when talking about J.D. Martinez. "This is a person who is a foundational leader of a team, this is a person who plays 40-50 games in the outfield. None of those categories have anything to do with being a DH.

“There are only three or four players in the game that have had a 1.000 OPS over the last three years and they not only hit for power but for average, they’re on base, they are literally a core… that is the vision of J.D. Martinez that I believe all teams have. I know my clients Jackie Bradley (Jr.) or Xander Bogaerts… have been dramatically benefitted by what J.D. Martinez does and what information he provides and the intensity he brings to the players… You just have difficulty in the game finding people that you know are one of the top five hitters in the game so I don’t think teams would in any way view J.D. Martinez as a DH."

Get the picture? Call Martinez anything you want, but don't you suggest to Boras he is a designated hitter. Because if you did classify the righty hitter as just a DH than that would make the idea of the $62.5 million committed to the 32-year-old by the Red Sox a fairly reasonable rate.

But Boras believes teams should view Martinez as something more. Now comes the interesting part: Can he make the rest of baseball commit to the same vision?

The guess here is that Martinez will be opting out of his deal about a month from now. You look at the kind of fit the White Sox represent, along with some other potential American League possibilities (Texas and Toronto, who will head into the offseason with just more than $50 million committed). And while his outfield metrics have slid slightly we shouldn't forget that it was a National League team (Arizona) which represented the Red Sox' chief competitors for the slugger's services just two years ago.

There is no doubt the kind of difference-maker Martinez has been in his two years with the Red Sox, compiling more total bases than anybody in baseball over the past pair of seasons while managing the fourth-best overall OPS (.985), only trailing Mike Trout, Christian Yelich and Mookie Betts.

The Red Sox have been 13-15 in games he hasn't participated in, going 142-78 when Martinez claims at least one hit and 53-18 on occasions he homers one or more times. Then there is the mentoring Boras mentions that have undeniably helped mold what was perhaps the best group of 1-4 hitters in any Red Sox' lineup.

But we know the payroll predicament the Red Sox find themselves in. So, the question for this team has to be how big a piece of the pie do they want to commit to Martinez?

There are counters to Boras' arguments, of course. Martinez is absolutely trending toward becoming more of a traditional designated hitter, manning the spot in 107 games in 2019 compared to 93 in 2018. Part of that was the team's quest to protect his balky back, which should represent somewhat of a red flag for teams hoping to run him out as an outfielder more than the 38 games he managed in '19.

So if that is the position Martinez will be prioritizing how important is it to the Red Sox to continue to maintain that David Ortiz-like presence?

Edwin Encarnacion may be a free agent (the Yankees have a $20 million option for 2020) and while representing an older, slightly less-productive option than Martinez, maybe he would all that the Red Sox needed, and as a cheaper price. While the Sox were desperate to have someone like Martinez serve as a springboard for the other hitters in the batting order, perhaps the likes of Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers have matured to the point where someone like Encarnacion in the mix would be enough.

Considering Encarnacion had put the Red Sox on his list of preferred landing spot when heading into free agency after the 2016 season (and he has 20 homers in 66 games at Fenway Park) it is certainly a palatable Plan B. The same can be said for exploring the services of Nelson Cruz, although the guess would be that Minnesota is going to pick up the 40-year-old's $12 million option for '20.

All in all, there is something about having Martinez around which gives just as much hope to these Red Sox as finding another starting pitcher. He remains the right guy at the right time, no matter what position is next to his name. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, it seems as though his agent and just enough teams in baseball realize the same thing.

WHAT TO MAKE OF ANDREW BENINTENDI

Some of what we saw with Benintendi in 2019 was a product of injuries. He revealed on the last day of the regular season that the injury sustained when fouling a ball off his foot in mid-April never felt quite right, with a calf ailment hampering a good chunk of his second half. But there was also the mechanics of his swing that were off from the get-go, necessitating the abandoning of his leg kick in July. (It was an adjustment that led to better production and is a switch he planned on cementing into his swing this offseason.)

But there was a lesson learned by Benintendi that didn’t help matters in 2019. He lost some of his athleticism.

The outfielder came into the season heavier than in years past, in part, he explained to WEEI.com, to keep up with the rest of baseball when it came to hitting the ball out of the park. After hitting 20 in his first full season, his number dropped to 16 in 2018. But the strategy didn’t translate in the manner Benintendi had hoped.

Not only did the left fielder end up with just 13 homers, but the kind of explosiveness that allowed Alex Cora to entertain the idea of putting Benintendi at the top of the order dwindled. According to StatCast, a sprint speed that was rated 75th overall in MLB when he first came up was now slotted in at 289th in all of baseball. Some of the results might be attributed to the aforementioned injuries, but there will undoubtedly be different priorities for Benintendi heading into 2020.

“I want to get lighter and more athletic this offseason,” he explained.

WHAT TONY LA RUSSA WAS WRITING DOWN

La Russa turned 75 years old last week. He doesn’t plan on slowing down.

“As long as someone will have me I will be in baseball,” he said too WEEI.com. “That’s all I’ve ever known.”

It appears La Russa will be returning to the Red Sox, having left a positive impression on all corners of the organization after his initial introduction by Dombrowski. Part of the reason for the Hall of Famer’s popularity is day-in, day-out due diligence he continues to offer.

La Russa has never been hard to find, sitting in the first row of the GM box at Fenway Park for seemingly every home game while making just about every road trip. And during each and every one of these games the former manager can be seen head down, furiously jotting down notes throughout the entire game. There is seemingly very little small talk. So, what is he doing?

“I learned a long time ago a unique system to keep score,” he explained. “I do that for every batter.”

The routine isn’t just about the normal method of scoring. It has a twist. La Russa adds plus and minus signs with every action, trying to highlight the mental and physical actions while adding up the plusses and minuses for each player. at the end of every game. (Video coordinator Billy Broadbent has made up a specially spaced scorecard for LaRussa.) And yes, he keeps each and every one of the sheets in a binder for short- and long-term review.

HOW MUCH DID THE 2013 DRAFT HURT?

The Red Sox top two picks in the ’13 draft have most likely seen their time come and go with the organization. The Red Sox top pick that year Trey Ball and the pitcher they took in the second round Teddy Stankiewicz are both becoming free agents this offseason, not having got a taste of the big leagues in six years of pro ball.

The reality of Ball, the pitcher-turned-position player, should sting. He was the seventh overall pick, never getting above Double-A while not playing a single inning in 2019 due to leg injuries. While the entire 2013 first round was one of the thinnest in recent memory there is no doubt the former lefty pitcher who signed directly out of high school will go down as the second-biggest miss (after No. 1 overall selection Mark Appel).

Taken after Ball were Hunter Dozier (Royals) and Austin Meadows (Pirates), both of whom have developed into above-average major leaguers. Others selected in the first round after the Red Sox spot who you might have heard of are Dominic Smith (Mets), Hunter Renfroe (Padres), Tim Anderson (White Sox), Marco Gonzales (Mariners), Aaron Judge (Yankees), Sean Manaea (A’s).

Stankiewicz came closer to the bigs than Ball, pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket with some success. But the righty never separated himself enough to be considered a piece of the big league’s team’s future. (About half of that 2013 second-round have made it to the majors but none of the selections have emerged into difference-makers.)

Looking back at that Red Sox’ draft one might suggest this was partially the impetus for what they are dealing with now. The Sox had just five players from the 2013 get a taste of the major leagues, with infielder Carlos Asuaje seeing some time as a utility infielder with the Padres in 2017 and ’18. The others? Mauricio Dubon might be getting a chance with he Giants. Pitchers Kyle Martin and Gabe Speier have seen a combined 11 big league games. And catcher Matt Thaiss, who the Sox drafted in the 32nd round, made his big league debut in 2019  with the Angels, who took him in the first round three years after he decided to head to college.

But the reality is that few teams found their foundation built that year.

Of the postseason clubs, not a lot found their difference-maker in that draft. Their best picks? The Rays, Ryne Stanek. The Astros, Tyler White. The A’s, Chad Pinder. The Twins, Kohl Stewart. The Brewers, Devin Williams. The Nationals, Austin Both.

The Dodgers and Yankees probably win the contest with Cody Bellinger and Judge, respectively, but after those two neither club had much to show for their efforts that year. The Cardinals drafted Luke Voit but gave up on him and didn’t have much of anything else in that draft.

REMEMBERING WHY YOU WANT JOE KELLY TO PITCH IN OCTOBER

Kelly’s first year with the Dodgers hasn’t been smooth-sailing but we may be on the verge of another reminder why Los Angeles committed to three years for the reliever. The former Red Sox is a really, really good postseason pitcher, as was evident once again in 2019 National League Division Series debut when he struck out two in an inning.

In 22 relief appearances in the playoffs, Kelly has totaled a 1.03 ERA, striking out 24 while walking just four.

The first-ever inductee into the Bradfo Sho podcast Hall of Fame doesn’t think it’s a coincidence.

"It's about understanding the basic instincts of the brain," said Kelly, a psychology major at the University of California-Riverside. "I wouldn’t say it necessarily helps me when I’m going through it. I don’t sit there on the mound thinking, ‘What did I learn in that Psych 128 class. I’m feeling anxious out here. I’m feeling anxiety.’ It’s not like I’m going back and trying to remember the coping mechanisms of how to deal with this situation. But I think learning about that before going into those situations, subconsciously helps me out a lot. But it’s not I’m thinking, ‘I know what to do with this. Let me check my notes and see if there are any lectures I can pull up.’ 

“I think just understanding from emotions to how people think how different personalities fit how people see the world. I think that has helped me try and understand people and myself, as well, on a deeper level besides baseball. It’s good to know which players you see or have on your team who understands it more, or who has knowledge when situations come up how to handle them. You can handle situations and still not be good. Your mechanics can be off. I’m not an expert, but there are little things to help here and there."

A GREAT BASEBALL DEBATE

During the end of the 2017 season a scout surfaced the question: If you could take one player of a group consisting of Alex Bregman, Dansby Swanson and Benintendi who would it be.

While the top of the preference order has become much more defined thanks to Bregman's MVP existence, at the time it led to a pretty good conversation. Now comes along another one.

Which player -- of a group that is currently 22 years old or younger -- would you take: Juan Soto, Ronald Acuna Jr., Gleyber Torres, Rafael Devers?

SOME OTHER THOUGHTS ...

- Of the many interesting insights given by Mookie Betts regarding his approach to the business of baseball, this quote from our conversation in Texas should be remembered: "I was able to implement (his agents') point of view with our point of view and it all kind of came together perfectly. They could say this is a great offer we think you should take it. But that’s not what we do. We’ve been talking about this since the beginning of the year." To me, this means they have had a number in mind for some time. They did when the Red Sox met the $20 million a year number last offseason, and the same approach is in play this time around. That's why the Red Sox have to give their best bid and not revert back to the start-low strategies used pre-Dombrowski.

- Much like Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr.'s future with the Red Sox seems somewhat in doubt. And also like his fellow outfielder it doesn't appear as though he will be shying away from the business of baseball. This was the center fielder's comment on the Bradfo Sho when asked if he was looking forward to hitting free agency after the 2020 season: "Absolutely. 100 percent. Back in the day, it seemed like everyone was excited to test free agency. Obviously with the way things have been going lately some people might not be as excited. I feel like if you have trust in yourself, trust in your ability you should be and I’m still excited about the opportunity to go to free agency."

- The Red Sox didn't have any interest in pursuing last year's top free agent from Japan pitcher Yusei Kikuchi. Considering the season turned in by the lefty (6-11, 5.46 ERA) for the Mariners it was probably a wise move. With their sights set on Nathan Eovaldi to fill out their rotation, the Sox didn't see a player like Kikuchi as a need. This offseason it would be a different story. But unlike recent years there doesn't really seem to be a whole of lot of Japanese pitchers to pick from. For that, you can partially blame the upcoming Olympics. While there are some interesting candidates the belief is that many of the top players in Japan don't want to lose the opportunity to represent their country in the Summer Games which will be held in Tokyo in 2020.

- Joe Girardi has been excellent on the broadcast during the Astros and Rays series, but you can't but help but think how each and every bit of analysis is subtly shaping his candidacy for managerial openings. Probably not much, but it definitely adds an interesting layer to every word. For instance, Girardi strongly stated that he would have Willy Adames attempt to steal second with a full count on Yandy Diaz, nobody out and the Rays trailing by a run. Adames did steal, with Diaz swinging at a potential Ball Four leading to Martin Maldonado easily throwing out the baserunner for a pivotal double play. Girardi's reasoning was strong, but the immediate awkwardness of having to soak in his ill-advised strategy was noticeable. In the end, TV gigs usually help make managers, and this ultimately will aid the former Yankees skipper.

- It's understandable why Mark Loretta is a candidate for the Cubs managing job. He was one of the most intelligent players to come through Boston during my time covering the team and has a demeanor and personality that allows for easy interaction throughout the clubhouse. But what I will really remember from that 2006 stint with the Red Sox is Manny Ramirez asking him if he picked up his gift basket at the All-Star Game following Manny's decision not to attend. Also of note: Loretta told the Red Sox he would come back on a one-year, $1 million contract despite getting multi-year offers elsewhere following his All-Star season. The Red Sox, however, already had plans to transition to a rookie named Dustin Pedroia.

- We all know players can make some money with postseason performances, but usually, it takes more than one for any kind of significant alteration in the financial evaluations. Drew Pomeranz, however, might have made at least a little more coin with his two perfect innings for the Brewers in their Wild Card loss to the Nationals. The lefty flashed a 97 mph fastball while getting out both righties and lefties. It was exactly what he had been doing since joining the Milwaukee bullpen, where the former Red Sox struck out 45 in 26 1/3 innings while totaling a 2.39 ERA. He represents exactly the type of relief pitcher teams will be craving in 2020 when pitchers are required to face as least three batters (or end the half-inning). Simply being named to the World Series roster in 2018 also didn't hurt Pomeranz's cause when the Giants were asking around, with the Red Sox letting it be known his velocity had crept up to the mid-90's in workouts.