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Exploring the value of J.D. Martinez

Boston’s in freefall and the Yankees need an upgrade. Could the rivals make a deal?

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Minnesota Twins David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports

Every year come trade deadline time, I have a White Whale. The one target I want the Yankees to land at nearly any cost. Sometimes they get him, like Sonny Gray in 2017, and sometimes they don’t, like Zack Greinke last year. In 2020, I’m 95% confident that my White Whale is Boston’s J.D. Martinez.

Aaron Judge returned to the lineup for exactly one game, DJ LeMahieu has resumed “baseball activities”, and there’s still no word on Giancarlo Stanton’s rehab process. Gleyber Torres is still out for at least ten days. Brett Gardner has been worth negative value, and Gary Sanchez has struggled to hit all year. The chances of the Yankees landing a big-name starter seem to be rather slim, and if you can’t prevent runs, you’ve gotta be able to score more.

Since rebuilding his swing after being cut by the Astros in 2013, Martinez has been the third-best hitter in all of baseball, trailing just Mike Trout and Aaron Judge. Crucially, he also has over 3500 plate appearances in those seven seasons. That’s 600 more than Giancarlo Stanton, virtually a full season, has over that same span. Since 2017 J.D.’s taken 250 more PAs than Judge, and almost 500 more than Gary Sanchez. Not only is Martinez an elite, elite hitter, but if the best ability is availability, he’s shown that he can stay on the field in ways that the Yankees’ best hitters just can’t.

Looking ahead, not behind, Martinez is projected by ZiPS to hit a .365 wOBA over the next three years, averaging a performance roughly equal to 2019’s Bryce Harper or Michael Brantley. He’s a star at the plate, and he’s shown the consistency needed for us to be confident he can keep it up. His team is also in free fall, and has already shown they’re willing to make major deals in a noncompetitive season.

But of course, the question is, what does he cost?

Martinez’s contract is super interesting — he signed for five years and $110 million back in 2018, but carries player options for each of the last three seasons. He could have opted out over the winter, but didn’t. He can opt out at the end of this season as well as next, and then hits free agency after the 2022 season.

This options structure introduces a set of uncertainty for teams, and uncertainty generally lowers value. The Yankees, or any team for that matter, don’t want to trade someone like Clarke Schmidt for Martinez, only for him to play 20 games in pinstripes, opt out, and leave. You don’t trade for players, you trade for contracts. projects a player’s value based on expected performance, team control and salary, and attempts to assign an objective cash estimate to every player in a team’s organization to give more realistic ideas of what trades could look like. It’s not perfect — there are variables that don’t factor in, and we’ll address those — but it’s a good starting point.

BTV gives Martinez a market value of about $7.9 million, just a hair more valuable than Clint Frazier and just under the value of Jordan Montgomery. But there are non-market forces that affect Martinez’s value to the Yankees specifically, and just using BTV isn’t sufficient.

First, I think there’s a real case to be made that teams have a Yankee tax, especially AL rivals. The Blue Jays traded Marcus Stroman to the Mets last year for far less than they reportedly asked the Yankees for, and the Tigers apparently demanded Gleyber Torres in exchange for Matt Boyd. These are entirely disproportionate asks, and it’s worth considering whether the Red Sox would do something similar. Sending two relievers to the Phillies is quite different than your best hitter suiting up for your biggest rivals.

The Yankees’ roster itself also complicates a pursuit of Martinez. He might be a boost to the lineup in 2020, but if everyone does come back healthy — admittedly a tall ask in and of itself — where does he hit? Where does he play? The Yankees are determined to keep Stanton at DH, and committed to keeping Brett Gardner’s playing time. It’s hard to imagine the team moving a weak fielder like Martinez into the cavernous left field of Yankee Stadium.

And of course, this gets even more complicated if J.D. doesn’t opt out over the winter, which is a realistic possibility if a revenue shortfall from the abbreviated season brings about a soft free agency market. In 2021, where do the Yankees play him? How does his $22 million AAV affect the team’s ability to extend DJ LeMahieu or Masahiro Tanaka?

J.D. Martinez is one of my favorite players in baseball, and would be an immediate plus to the Yankees. On a pure cost basis, it wouldn’t even take that much to acquire him, but he’s just too much of a square peg for the round hole the Yankees are looking to fill, and there’s no real way he fits on the roster in 2020, or beyond. Like Captain Gardiner, I’m afraid I have to turn away from the White Whale.