It only took four months, but J.D. Martinez is finally in a Red Sox uniform. Our long national nightmare is over. The Red Sox have their big bat, and have come even with the Yankees for a divisional fight that is sure to last all season long. The narratives are all but set. The Monster is sure to get a few new dents in it. Everyone’s happy, and Martinez gets up to $110 million to crush baseballs in Boston for five years.
The operative words in that last sentence are “up to”. Martinez has three opt-outs in the contract: one that comes after the second year, another that comes after the third, and the final one comes after the fourth. That seems a little odd at first, but it works well with what the Red Sox are currently working with in regards to their future. That sounds a little ominous, yes, but it’s not something that we’ve been in the dark about. The Red Sox’s plans for the next few years have been obvious, but the Martinez contract cemented them. This team currently has a well-established championship window, and it won’t last long into the next decade.
So let’s start with the details on Martinez’s contract. Martinez, if he plays through the entire contract, will earn $110 million. That comes with an “if” statement because, again, Martinez has three opt outs in the contract — one after two years, and another after three. He’ll earn $23.75 million in each of the first two years, and he’ll collect the same amount again in the third year if he decides to opt in. Martinez can choose to opt out after the fourth year as well, and he’ll potentially earn $19.35 million in that year and he’ll earn the same amount in the fifth year of the contract. The first two years are the only things you’re certain to get in this contract. That and dingers. Lots of dingers.
The major thing you should notice here is that Martinez’s contract is frontloaded. Unlike David Price’s contract, in which he’d see a raise to a $30 million average annual value if he opts in after 2018, Martinez would instead drop to that 19.35 number from earlier. It’s not a huge incentive to stick around, unless, say, the team is good. Plenty of players have stuck around to try and win with a certain team for less money. It’s not unheard of.
Problem is, when you look at what the 2020 Red Sox team could look like, you’re not likely to be encouraged by what you see. Craig Kimbrel and Drew Pomeranz are set to be free agents after 2018, and David Price could opt out and join them in the market if he doesn’t want to stay. 2019 is even more of a disaster when it comes to free agency, as Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, and Rick Porcello all become free agents as well. In 2020, you lose a major part of the young core, as Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. depart due to free agency, along with Carson Smith. That’s a lot of key players lost. As of this writing, the Red Sox will only have one player confirmed to be on the books with a non-rookie contract in 2021, and that’s Dustin Pedroia.
So there’s a lot of incentive here for Martinez to only look out for himself, and I don’t blame him one bit for it. Players should strive to earn the most they can. It also suggests a positive feedback loop for whenever the Red Sox start to take a step down from the level of the rest of the title contenders. If the Red Sox can’t sign their young stars to a few extensions, or keep some of their pending free agents, Martinez has no reason to stay. He can opt out after 2019 if everything falls apart, and go to a team like the Los Angeles Angels that desperately needs a designated hitter that’s not decrepit. He doesn’t need to have loyalty to Boston when it comes to other opportunities, and as a player, that’s a savvy business move. Can’t hate the hustle, y’know.
What that contract also announces is that the Red Sox’s championship window has some pretty clear framework. 2018 and 2019 are going to be the best possible teams the Red Sox will probably have in the near future.
What that contract also announces is that the Red Sox’s championship window has some pretty clear framework. 2018 and 2019 are going to be the best possible teams the Red Sox will probably have in the near future, barring another free agent splurge. They’re no longer sitting on a hotbed of game-changing talent in the minors like they were a few years ago, and that hampers their ability to acquire players to make an impact on the major-league level, either through development or trades. It’s a bit reductionist, but this version of the Red Sox will only go as far as their extensions do, which isn’t much farther than 2020 right now. If the Red Sox do decide to dump money into the free agent market in the coming years, they might end up like the San Francisco Giants, who are trying to stay competitive in a very tough division despite having very little in the farm system. Whether that’s good or bad is all perspective at this point, since we don’t know how well the Giants will do in 2018, and staying relevant like that isn’t always a massive financial drain.
I’m not trying to be cynical here. Really. I’m not. This is what Dave Dombrowski’s been doing the last few offseasons. He’s been setting the team up for several runs deep into October since 2016 began. But even with Martinez now on the roster, the Red Sox could end up as the fourth-best team in the American League. The Yankees and Astros are juggernauts with a wealth of talent on the farm, and Cleveland’s pitching is still incredible — and they also have a lot of young talent, including the fifth-best prospect in baseball according to BP’s rankings. The window isn’t just somewhat short, but the obstacles are daunting as well. I’d gladly eat crow if it meant the Red Sox bulldozed through the other 29 teams, but realistically, it’s going to be tough, no matter what year they want to compete in.
The title window plan wasn’t unique nor a franchise secret, but I’ll admit it wasn’t exactly put out there for everyone to see. But there’s a downside to peaking like this, and it’s the inevitable drop that comes afterwards. Martinez’s contract is structured so he doesn’t have to stick around for that. His contract suggests he’s the last piece of the puzzle for the final few pushes, and then he can leave when he pleases. He doesn’t have to wait for the Red Sox to hit on high draft picks and shrewd international signings to reinforce their major league talent. That contract is one big exit strategy once the Red Sox start falling apart.
Maybe the Red Sox start handing out extensions like party favors, maybe guys like Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers become legendarily good, and then maybe Martinez sticks around for the long haul. There’s definitely hope for long-term success. But for now, the title window is open with Martinez. When it shuts, though, it’ll come down hard and fast, and the Red Sox will have to find another way to get back to the top.
Photo by Joe Camporeale — USA TODAY Sports