As has been explained on probably close to a weekly basis on this website and others, the St. Louis Cardinals have a problem. Well, kind of. It’s actually a great problem to have, in and of itself–they have a surplus of good hitters such that first baseman/occasional corner outfielder Jose Martinez, who has been the team’s second-best hitter in 2018, does not have a firmly entrenched spot in the Cardinals lineup.
If a great team had a player of Jose Martinez’s caliber unable to crack the regular starting lineup, it would be a very satisfying problem to have. You have a great pinch-hitter and great depth. You have what the 2011 World Series champion Cardinals had in Allen Craig. But the 2018 Cardinals, at least if all available evidence is to be believed, are not a great team. Jose Martinez is a luxury for a team which does not have the base to warrant luxuries when that luxury could theoretically command something more impactful to the Cardinals.
The most common suggestion floated about for the Cardinals’ handling of Jose Martinez is to trade him to an American League team with a need for a designated hitter. On paper, it makes sense–Martinez has demonstrated very good hitting ability, but not much fielding prowess, so logically, he would thrive in a spot where he could continue to do the thing he’s good at doing and cease doing the thing he’s bad at.
The big issue is scarcity. There are half as many MLB teams which employ a designated hitter, and while, say, a center fielder who is traded could logically transition to left or right field, a designated hitter is pretty much just a designated hitter. Unless he’s a first baseman or corner outfielder, in which case Jose Martinez is basically what he is in St. Louis, so what’s the point?
A relevant caveat when discussing Jose Martinez is that I don’t think most National League fans, myself included, properly adjust for how high the threshold of offense for a designated hitter is. Through Sunday, there were 12 designated hitters who appeared in at least 50 games at the position (and thus it is fair to say, with the possible exception of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani, that all of these players are full-time DHs), and of those 12, 11 have been above-average hitters. Victor Martinez, with his 66 OPS+ for an unmotivated Detroit Tigers team, drags down the average quite a bit, but the median OPS+ for these full-time designated hitters is 121.5, splitting the middle between Evan Gattis and C.J. Cron. Five designated hitters surpassed the 123 OPS+ accumulated so far in 2018 by Jose Martinez–J.D. Martinez, Nelson Cruz, Khris Davis, Shohei Ohtani, and Shin-Soo Choo.
So what Jose Martinez can provide an AL team is not an elite DH but a pretty good one, and one who is both under team control for a while (he will reach free agency following the 2022 season at the earliest) and is not utterly incapable of spot duty in the field–he may not be Andrelton Simmons, but he certainly isn’t David Ortiz, either. Seemingly, this is something that an American League team would value.
Here is a quick look at every American League team and what kind of fit Jose Martinez would be with said team. Each team is assigned a level of logic: “not happening”, “it’s not crazy”, and “yeah keep an eye on this one.”
- Baltimore Orioles: Technically incumbent DH Mark Trumbo could move back to first base or a corner outfield spot, but he might be worse in the field than Jose Martinez at this point. Martinez would be an upgrade at first base over Actually The Worst Player In Baseball This Year Chris Davis, but Davis is under contract through 2022 (!!). Also, the Orioles, who traded Manny Machado and Zach Britton in the leadup to the trade deadline, are firmly sellers, and investing in a 30 year-old DH probably isn’t on their radar. Not happening.
- Boston Red Sox: They have two of the best hitters in baseball this year occupying two Martinez positions–right field (Mookie Betts) and designated hitter (J.D. Martinez). Left fielder Andrew Benintendi has also out-hit Jose Martinez, and the most logical J-Mart fit for the Red Sox, as a platoon partner with Mitch Moreland, presents so little upside that it isn’t really worth investigating in too much depth. Not happening.
- New York Yankees: If Brett Gardner leaves in free agency, Giancarlo Stanton will presumably vacate DH duty to take over in left field, and the DH spot becomes wide open. Additionally, first baseman Greg Bird is a lefty, and while he has a little bit of a reverse split in his career, some sort of insurance might be nice, especially given that Bird isn’t exactly the focal point of the Yankees offense. Yeah keep an eye on this one.
- Tampa Bay Rays: C.J. Cron, under contract through 2020, has been marginally worse as a hitter than Jose Martinez, and first baseman Jake Bauers, a rookie, has been better than either. The subsequent buying of Tommy Pham and selling of Chris Archer makes me a bit confused on whether the Rays are buyers or sellers, but if they are buyers, Jose Martinez just doesn’t seem to present much of a fit here. Not happening.
- Toronto Blue Jays: Martinez is better than incumbent Kendrys Morales, but how motivated are the Blue Jays to compete in the near future? I don’t think they’re about to outright tank, though, so it’s reasonable to expect the Blue Jays to do a Cardinals-esque thing where they keep putting out good but non-juggernaut teams in hopes to sneak into playoff positions. It’s not crazy.
- Chicago White Sox: They aren’t good and their current DH, Matt Davidson, is 27 years old. I can’t imagine the White Sox have any interest in Jose Martinez at this point in their competitive window. Not happening.
- Cleveland Indians: In a vacuum, J-Mart makes a TON of sense to Cleveland, a modest-budget team that wants to win now. But the Indians owe over $21 million next season to their current DH, Edwin Encarnacion. They may be too committed to him to improve, even if Martinez is probably a little bit better at this point. That said, current first baseman Yonder Alonso isn’t too difficult to usurp (though in theory, the Indians prioritize first base defense more than most teams, and this is why Alonso was signed to play first base instead of Encarnacion anyway). It’s not crazy.
- Detroit Tigers: The aforementioned abysmal Victor Martinez is a free agent after this year, so that frees up a DH spot, but at this point, it might just go to Miguel Cabrera. Also, the Tigers surely don’t care about competing any time soon. Man, Detroit sports are bleak right now. Motor City out here banking on the Lions to be adequate. Sheesh. Not happening.
- Kansas City Royals: It makes no sense for the Royals to really try, but Jose Martinez’s former organization has plenty of space to accommodate him, and comments from GM Dayton Moore suggest the Royals aren’t exactly looking to completely decimate themselves a la the early 2010s Houston Astros. Just, keep an eye on it. It’s not crazy.
- Minnesota Twins: They’re still in an awful division so their competitive window for a Wild Card berth remains open, even after a rather lackluster 2018. Local hero Joe Mauer would be unmovable from first base, even though he’s currently worse than Jose Martinez, but his contract is up after this season. Designated hitter Logan Morrison is both bad and a free agent after 2018. The only current Twin with a higher OPS+, Eddie Rosario, has a one point edge. Yeah keep an eye on this one.
- Houston Astros: The current DH, Evan Gattis, is basically as good offensively as Jose Martinez, and is a free agent after the season. The current first baseman, Yuli Gurriel, is materially worse offensively. The main thing stopping this may be the ambition of the Astros–they still have a young team and they seem to have the desire to continue to improve substantially rather than incrementally. Still though. It’s not crazy.
- Los Angeles Angels: Shohei Ohtani ain’t playing the outfield, and even with injury concerns, the team that’s still paying Albert Pujols isn’t going to pay another awkward bat-only guy, even if it’s not that much. They might make room for him for free, but the Angels aren’t going to give up anything of value for Jose Martinez. Not happening.
- Oakland Athletics: This would be so fun in the abstract, but Khris Davis, the okay-range outfielder who almost literally can’t throw, has settled nicely into the designated hitter position, and the A’s rightfully aren’t going to jettison Matt Olson to make room for Jose Martinez. Not happening.
- Seattle Mariners: Nelson Cruz is going to be a free agent, so Jose Martinez as a replacement makes some level of sense. But my money remains on the Mariners re-signing Nelson Cruz. Is there a bigger match made in heaven than Seattle and Nelson Cruz at this point? It’s not crazy.
- Texas Rangers: Shin-Soo Choo is suddenly competent again! And he’s under contract for two more seasons. Which, um, that’s a really bad contract. I know he’s better now. But still. Not happening.
As you can see, the market for Jose Martinez, while existent, is not huge. Which is why I make one very simple request when it comes to shipping Jose Martinez–don’t do it for the sake of doing it.
Jose Martinez is a solid player with an uneven but overall worthwhile skill set. If a team wants to give up something of real value, something which could help the Cardinals win now or in the future to a greater extent than Jose Martinez can, by all means the Cardinals should part ways. But to give up Jose Martinez simply because he seems excessive is illogical. Enjoy the good thing while you can.