The Monday Baseball Column: The MLB problem J.D. Martinez wants to see fixed

Rob Bradford
March 02, 2020 - 12:19 pm
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FORT MYERS, Fla. — J.D. Martinez is perturbed. And he isn’t alone.

When Major League Baseball Players’ Association chief Tony Clark came to JetBlue Park last week he was met with a particular concern that Martinez can’t shake: Major League Baseball seems OK with too many teams being fine with the idea of not winning.

“In the new CBA we have to figure out a way to make teams competitive,” Martinez told WEEI.com, referencing a collective bargaining agreement that expires after the 2021 season. “I believe we are losing a lot of fan bases in certain cities because there are no rewards for winning. There's more of a reward for losing in today’s game than anything. I think we’re losing a lot of fans because teams are more motivated to lose than they are to win. Right now you can figure out the top three or four teams in the league and what teams are going to be competing for the World Series. That’s not how it should be. That’s what the game needs to get better at, making it more balanced.

“(Commissioner Rob) Manfred goes on record by saying salaries have no influence on whether teams are trying to win or not, which is totally wrong. If that was the case then get rid of the luxury tax. They don’t do that. Why? We have to figure out a way to reward teams for competing and not reward them for losing.”

Clark, of course, has been hit with a myriad of concerns from the players as he tours these camps. But the one Martinez brings up seems to have legs when it comes to the MLBPA wanting to make it a priority.

At least that is the vibe Martinez gives off.

“Of course,” he said when asked if the topic was being broached with Clark. “Everybody is on the same page. I think you heard players lash out the last couple of years about free agency and how teams aren’t competitive. There’s a new way and it’s either tank or go all in and that’s not the way it should be.”

There is no doubt a player like Martinez has a vested interest in teams paying money, with the slugger earning the right to enter free agency after this season. But he also sees how his game is trending in more than a few markets when it comes to sustained interest.

Martinez grew up idolizing the world champion Marlins in 1997 and 2003, now wondering what his fandom would look like if he lived life following this recent version of the Miami club.

“Take away rewards from teams for losing,” he said. “That whole idea isn’t working. Look at the game today, it’s so split in half. You have your outlier like Tampa, but those are rare. To me, teams are losing a lot of fans and MLB is losing a lot of fans.

“Manfred’s idea of adding more playoff teams, that’s not it. To me, it’s stop rewarding them for losing. Start rewarding teams for winning. You win, you get rewarded. Every time nowadays you sign a player and you have to give them a draft pick. No. Why? It enables teams to do more of that. They don’t want to give their draft picks away because that’s what they value more.

“Think it about like this: You’ve got little Tommy who lives in Pittsburgh and he’s six years old. When he’s six we’re rebuilding in Pittsburgh. We’re on a rebuild program. So now little Tommy goes four years without ever getting influenced to go to a Pirates game because they’re not good. I’m not trying to pick on the Pirates, I’m just giving an example. That’s a generation you might lose to another sport because maybe the Penguins might be good. So all of a sudden the kid is more attracted to hockey because when you’re a kid that’s what you want to see. You want to see the team that is in the playoffs. That’s what the buzz around the city is. So when you have half the teams shutting down you’re going to lose generations. They don’t feel it now but I have a feeling they are going to feel it in the future.”

So, what is the solution? In Martinez’s mind, it’s simple: A floor tax. Just as teams are penalized for going over the competitive balance threshold, they should be whacked for not spending to a certain level. 

Considering MLB’s revenues have grown four-fold since the last CBA was negotiated, proponents of this idea have some ammunition.

“Put a luxury tax on the floor. Put a floor tax,” Martinez said. “You want to go under, you’re going to get penalized. Now all of a sudden the Marlins can’t go out and trade their entire outfield. Now you have to keep players who are relevant so it forces you to be relevant. You’re not sitting in there tanking. The teams take advantage of it. They get the money at the end of the day and put it right in their pockets.

“You put a floor, you make them tax it. To me there's no reason teams should not be spending money in today’s game. You look at this game, from our last CBA agreement I think the average was $2.5-3 billion to over $10.5 now, but the tax is the same. Where is that money going? There is a lot of money that is being put in. The problem is that the players get the bad rep because they say all these players are being greedy and they want all the money. The problem is that the owners are making four times the amount they made so where is all that money going?

“(Manfred's job), as the commissioner, (is) to protect the actual game, the growing of the game. He’s missing out on generations. Generations are not going to experience baseball in all these places because their teams aren’t relevant. There is no interest. Kids want to see relevant teams. An adult might say, ‘OK, we’re rebuilding and it’s going to be OK.’ That’s an adult. They have already been fans.”

He has a point.

SOME EARLY-SPRING TRAINING INTRIGUE

It might mean next to nothing, but first impressions are still first impressions. Here are a few from watching the opening week of spring training games:

- One very interesting arm belongs to Phillips Valdez, the pitcher the Red Sox plucked off of waivers from the Mariners. The 6-foot-3, 160-pound righty (yes, he is Chris Sale skinny) has a tattoo on his left arm which reads, “Be different.” Why? “I got that because there are a lot of guys who try and imitate others. But for myself, I want to be someone who is different and unique. That’s the type of person I am,” he told WEEI.com through a translator.

Valdez can already claim 11 major league appearances from last season, one of which saw him strike out Mike Trout. In his first outing with the Red Sox he struck out two of the three batters he faced. Using a plus-two-seamer and changeup, the reliever had more than a few watching back in the Sox’ clubhouse take notice.

- Rule 5 Draft pick Jonathan Arauz has held his own. The 21-year-old is still somewhat of a long shot to make the team considering he hasn’t played above Single-A, but there is that extra spot on the roster this season that makes keeping a Rule 5 player more palatable if they can bring something to the table.

With the ability to play second base, shortstop and third base, Arauz has acquitted himself well in the field while even popping a home run. He has looked better than Marco Hernandez, but still might be behind Tzu-Wei Lin in the competition for a utility role.

“At first I was nervous but it’s going better than I expected. It’s going good,” Arauz told WEEI.com though a translator. “I’m proving that I can play with these guys. That’s something that comes with hard work. I’m showing them that I do belong here. I was really nervous at first. I wouldn’t talk. I wouldn’t even laugh. I was just in my head.”

- Lefty Jeffrey Springs, who the Red Sox got in a trade for Sam Travis, is going to most likely factor into the major league equation at some point. It’s easy to see why he has pitched in 43 big league games after watching the southpaw strikeout six in his first three innings. But Springs also has three options left, most likely making in a victim of his roster versatility to start.

- As for the fifth starter role, two pitchers have opened eyes. Using a shortened delivery, Brian Johnson has hit the ground running as a non-roster candidate, allowing just one baserunner in his first four innings. And Tanner Houck was notably stretched out to three innings Sunday, dominating righty hitters with a vicious slider.

WHEN SPRING TRAINING PERFORMANCE ACTUALLY MEANS SOMETHING

Jonathan Lucroy remembers 2015 well.

That spring training he hit .435 with a 1.306 OPS and five homers. It didn’t translate to April, with the catcher finishing April with a .133 batting average, .393 OPS and no homers. The lesson was that it is OK for veterans to ease into the regular season.

The problem for Lucroy this time around is that he really doesn’t have that option as a non-roster invitee.

“My body feels great. Health-wise I feel great,” he said, having felt the impact of neck surgery in the offseason. “That part is great. Now it’s just getting back into the swing of things. I haven’t felt this good physically in a long time. Now it’s getting the rest of it figured out. Timing. Seeing it. It’s a different situation. Now I am in a different spot. I have to have a great spring. You can’t ease it into. You have to get after it. 

“I’m going to be a little more aggressive. I have always been a patient hitter, but sometimes that will get in trouble because you’re too patient. For me, I want to be a little more aggressive. I’m not thinking about it actively in my mind.”

MUSIC TO BRANDON WORKMAN’S EARS

Since his arrival in the big leagues, some things haven’t changed. Such as his intro music: “Runnin’ Out of Moonlight” by Randy Houser.

“It has been the same since 2013,” Workman explained. “They gave it to me. First appearance. They didn’t want to ask me what Iw anted to walk out there before start. Drake Britton gave it to them. I almost changed it a bunch of times, but I never pulled the trigger on it.”

But there are some things that have done a 180-degree turn, such as Workman’s on-field existence since last spring training.

It’s hard to remember how close the Red Sox’ current closer came to not making the team last season, needing a one-inning Grapefruit League finale — in which he struck out the side — to seal his deal.

“I don’t know if it was the difference, but it didn’t hurt,” he noted. “It’s definitely a different boat than I was in last year. I was just trying to make the team.”

Now Workman is on the verge of being classified as one of the game’s elite closers, and living that life in a contract year, too boot. It was a reality that was put on display in his first spring training appearance Sunday in which he absolutely dominated. The reliever cruised through his three batters, striking out Marcell Ozuna and Yonder Alonso on six pitches.

“I’m still going to go out and pitch just like I was trying to get a job,” Workman said. “There are different things to think about, different role or whatever. But it’s still the same thing.”

SOME OTHER THINGS …

- Yes, Jarren Duran has heard of the 1980’s group “Duran, Duran”. In fact, the outfielder used their biggest hit “Hungry Like a Wolf” for his walk-up music while playing for Double-A Portland last season. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he hadn’t heard of the band. A few years ago when talking about Mookie Betts’ namesake, Mookie Blaylock, and how “Pearl Jam” was originally named after the former NBA guard, Betts admitted he had no familiarity with the legendary group.

- Appearing on the Red Sox Radio Broadcast last week, current Twins pitcher Rich Hill had an interesting idea when it came to reparations for the Astros’ cheating scandal. Forget about vacating the championship trophy. The Houston ownership should pay the hefty bonuses lost to the Dodgers’ clubhouse personnel, many of whom lives’ are changed by collecting the World Series-winning share (more than $300,000).