The Red Sox did not want J.D. Martinez last year.
Despite what ownership might say about goals vs. mandates, dropping below the luxury tax threshold was their primary, secondary, and only motivation during the 2020 offseason, which culminated in the trade of Mookie Betts.
Long before Betts jetted off to L.A., however, the Red Sox saw an opportunity to save roughly $20 million annually, but only if Martinez opted out of the final three years of his contract. He correctly read the market for designated hitters as grim and chose to stay put, a decision he repeated this winter.
Make no mistake: if Martinez had opted out either season, he’d be gone. Since chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom arrived to oversee a rebuild, the biggest contract the Red Sox have handed out is two years and $14 million for utilityman Kiké Hernández.
They weren’t about to break the bank for a designated hitter, even one as talented as Martinez, and he surely knows it. He took the decision out of their hands, however, and it’s a damn good thing.
In a 14-9 victory over the Orioles on Sunday, Martinez continued a start so torrid, there might soon be no parallels for it. Just hours after being cleared from COVID protocols with a cold, he slammed three homers as part of a 4-for-6 day that just cemented his place as the hottest hitter in the game.
“He’s locked in, you can tell,” said manager Alex Cora. “Walking around talking hitting. This is a guy I saw in ’18 and ’19, he has an idea of what he wants to do.”
Martinez has appeared in eight games and recorded an extra-base hit in all of them, tying him with Alex Rodriguez and Sandy Alomar Jr. for the longest such streak to open a season, according to The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier. He’s hitting .472 with five homers, 16 RBIs, and an OPS of 1.583. Those numbers, needless to say, are insane.
They’re also exactly what the Red Sox hoped they were paying for when they signed him to a five-year $110 million contract in 2018 — a deal that already looks like one of the biggest bargains in franchise history.
After a lost 2020, Martinez insisted he would make amends. But after a so-so spring, it was hard to calibrate expectations. Since the opening bell, however, he has thrown one haymaker after another, and every power shot is landing.
“He said it, he wasn’t ready (in 2020),” Cora said. “You can talk about video and all that, but I don’t think he was physically ready for the season. Not that it caught him off guard, whatever reason he had, he admitted it and he put in work in the offseason. This guy, he’s really good. He’s a good hitter, he’s great for his teammates, and I’m glad that he’s hitting third for us.”
Sunday’s home runs went to right field, right field, and dead center. Martinez is a force from foul pole to foul pole, yanking fastballs into the left field corner and taking breaking balls over the right field fence. Always a clinician at the plate, he is as locked in as he has ever been, and that includes 29 home runs in just 62 games with the Diamondbacks in 2017.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Martinez countered. “That’s a long shot away. If I get to 12 home runs this month, you can ask me that question.”
When Martinez signed, the looming opt-outs made his Red Sox tenure look like it might be of the short-term mercenary variety. But then the DH market tanked and the pandemic struck and he decided it made financial sense to stay in Boston.
The Red Sox are reaping the rewards of that decision, even though there was a time when they probably would’ve preferred that he opt out.
Those days are gone, because now he looks indispensable. Now he’s not going anywhere.