Years after a mid-career shift that would make him a poster child for modern hitting development, J.D. Martinez cashed in. His previous time hitting the free-agent market paid him handsomely, as the Boston Red Sox were hopeful he could be the piece that pushed their group of gifted homegrown position players over the top.
Upon his arrival at Fenway Park, he was entrusted with a more specific task.
“They pretty much assigned me Mookie Betts,” Martinez told The Athletic’s Chad Jennings this past August. “They called me into the office and said, ‘This is your project.’ I said, ‘Damn, alright.’”
Betts was the most promising of them all, and Martinez’s soothsaying brought out the best in the All-Star outfielder. Betts’ OPS jumped nearly 200 points, resulting in the AL MVP award. The Red Sox won the World Series, with Martinez’s forceful right-handed bat helping lead the way.
His voice and guidance resonated among a core of All-Stars, a skill set that drew notice from outside the organization as well.
“I feel like he’s a hitting coach in himself,” Martinez’s now-former teammate, Xander Bogaerts, said then.
Dodgers one of multiple teams in mix for free-agent right-hander Seth Lugo, sources tell me and @FabianArdaya. LAD most likely would build up Lugo to start, viewing him as added depth for rotation. If their young starters perform, they could always move him back to bullpen.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 18, 2022
It is that guidance, along with a still-productive bat, that appealed to the Dodgers as they charted how to fill some of the holes in their lineup in the wake of an exodus of free agents.
Now, they’ll reunite Martinez with Betts as the five-time All-Star and three-time Silver Slugger came to terms on a one-year, $10 million deal with the Dodgers on Saturday, sources told The Athletic.
The Dodgers’ interest in Martinez dates to last year’s trade deadline. They are hopeful that Martinez can be a quality veteran presence in a clubhouse that could be without its longest-tenured position player, Justin Turner, and already lost another valuable right-handed bat in All-Star Trea Turner.
Martinez’s voice could help smooth the transition as the Dodgers integrate some of their promising young position players, such as Miguel Vargas, who projects to land a sizable role. James Outman projects to be part of Los Angeles’ outfield picture. Michael Busch, a first-round pick in 2019, could crack the big leagues by the season’s end. As they arrive, they could enter a clubhouse impacted by an external voice, much like how the addition of Freddie Freeman last spring shifted some of their hitting conversations.
And in pairing Martinez with Dodgers hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc, whom Martinez credits along with private hitting instructor Craig Wallenbrock for his career reinvention after the 2013 season, the Dodgers are banking on some remaining thump in Martinez’s bat. The 35-year-old designated hitter had a .790 OPS in 596 plate appearances in 2022 but had just a .701 OPS in the second half and finished with his lowest full-season slugging percentage (.448) since his career fortunes changed in 2014.
Martinez affixes some of the rest of the lineup into place. The Dodgers were hesitant to lock themselves into a full-time designated hitter when afforded the opportunity in 2020 and with the advent of the universal DH in 2022, but likely will now. Martinez hasn’t played the outfield since 2021.
Having a locked-in DH complicates, but doesn’t rule out, a potential return for Justin Turner. The Dodgers have stated publicly that they’d be interested in bringing back the 38-year-old this winter for what would be a 10th season in Los Angeles. But as their longtime third baseman’s market has grown, Martinez serves as insurance. Max Muncy, Chris Taylor and Vargas could tackle much of the time at third base should Turner go elsewhere, with each of the three capable of sliding over to second base to make the puzzle pieces work.
Martinez’s signing carries more weight in name value and pedigree than it does in actual cost to the Dodgers’ payroll. Martinez’s $10 million pushed the Dodgers’ luxury tax payroll to a projected $210 million, according to FanGraphs’ Roster Resource, with room to operate still even if the Dodgers hope to stay under the first tax threshold of $233 million.
The additions of Noah Syndergaard and Martinez this week on one-year deals worth a combined $23 million represent wagers on the Dodgers’ ability to maximize established talents. They’ll continue to pursue players in that vein. Sources told The Athletic the Dodgers are among the teams pushing to sign right-hander Seth Lugo, looking to convert the longtime Mets reliever into a starter and bring out some untapped upside potential while adding more rotation depth.
— The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal contributed to this report.
(Photo: Jay Biggerstaff / USA Today Sports)