There’s no such thing a sure thing in professional sports, especially in the COVID world, but we feel pretty confident in predicting J.D. Martinez won’t test the free agent waters this winter.
In fact, the Boston Red Sox designated hitter has all but admitted as much.
“I guess that’s up to (agent Scott Boras), but I think given the situation and everything, I’m probably not leaning that way (free agency),” Martinez told reporters in late September as the 2020 club limped to the finish line.
Martinez could opt out of his contract and hit the market. That, however, seems unlikely given Martinez would be entering a volatile market after arguably the worst season of his career. It certainly was Martinez’s worst performance since revitalizing his career with the Detroit Tigers.
Few players in baseball struggled with the short season like Martinez, who never got going. The 33-year-old hit a career-worst .213, and his .680 OPS was worse than any other year in his career, save for 2013, the year that served as his low-water mark and led to the complete offensive overhaul. Over a 162-game season, he would have been on pace for roughly 20 home runs and 75 RBIs, which again, would have been his worst production since 2013.
Opting in is the smart move for Martinez. He can still make $38 million over the next two seasons which obviously is good. That’s a lot of money. Granted, his yearly salary does dip from nearly $24 million to just over $19 million next season, but going to free agency represents the great unknown. Salaries for aging free agents have been depressed for a few years now leaving players with a whole bunch of uncertainty. Martinez, you’ll recall, has already been down that road, as he didn’t sign with Boston until after spring training had begun in 2018.
That uncertainty is likely to be even greater this winter, as no one can say for certain what the financial forecast in the sport looks like over the next handful of years. The pandemic — and at least a season of gateless baseball — is already taking its toll on the sport. Throw in a looming labor war upon the conclusion of this collective bargaining agreement, and the water is rather murky.
There’s also the matter of the aforementioned production or lack thereof. Had Martinez showcased a 50-home run pace in the abbreviated 2020 story, maybe it would be a different story.
The reported intracies of Martinez’s contract have him well-positioned for one final payday. Perhaps it won’t be as big as Martinez (and Boras) first envisioned when they signed the contract with opt-outs following the 2019, 2020 and 2021 seasons. Martinez will be 33 for most of the 2021 season, but if he rebounds and has another Martinez-like season, he could gamble on himself and opt out of the final year of his contract.
Maybe there’s a three-year, $65 million deal out there or something like that. And, if he and Boras believe there won’t be an offer like that, he could always opt into the final year and make just south of $20 million. There are worse decisions to have to make.
A lot of Martinez’s future earning power comes down to what he’s able to do in 2021. Assuming he’s not completely washed up, it’s hard to envision another season-long slump like he had in 2020. Sympathy for millionaire baseball players is always hard to come by, especially in the midst of an economic downturn amid a pandemic. But Martinez expressed difficulty in doing his job this season, while also lamenting MLB’s guidelines. Specifically, Martinez — a devoted student of the game — struggled without being able to watch video during games. It seems hard to believe a lack of video is the sole reason for his slump, but it clearly played some sort of a role.
Whether the video issue is resolved in time for the 2021 season remains to be seen. However, the shock and downright weirdness of baseball in COVID times should subside some by Opening Day 2021.
Everyone will know what to expect, and the new season represents a blank slate. Martinez is too good to have another dreadful season. If he’s able to rebound, it obviously benefits both him and the team when both sides will need those benefits in a big way after a forgettable 2020 performance.