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Trade fits for José Martínez

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A move of Cafecito makes sense for the 2019 Cardinals roster

San Francisco Giants v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

It’s hard to part with your favorite players.

The whole concept is really strange, when you think about it: We fans develop these connections with the players comprising our favorite teams just by spectating.

We spend most every night with them for six or more months, watching successes and failures, catching glimpses of personality through cameras trained on the dugout or an on-field celebration.

Most of the time, a favorite doesn’t become one based solely on performance. That type of connection is more of a personality thing.

For me, José Martínez has been that player.

I love the story of the minor league grind. The way he’s fighting to bring his son to the United States just to watch him play a game or two. His seemingly-constant cheerfulness and the playful way he approaches the game.

I really, really love the way the guy hits.

I wrote about it earlier this year, when it became apparent that Martínez was excelling at the plate with an approach that most didn’t pursue, slapping line drives to the opposite field on pitches that were often well out of the zone.

This piece on Cafecito has a bit of a different tone than my last.

Martínez has been brought up consistently in trade rumors over the last year or so. Though his bat is extremely solid, the defense clearly lags behind.

Cumulatively, Martínez was worth -11 DRS in 2018. That’s comprised of -6 in the outfield and -5 at first base. His UZR/150 at those positions was -4.3 and -4, respectively.

For all the talk about how rough his glove looked at first—and it did look pretty rough—he was just as bad (or worse) in the outfield, according to defensive metrics, and that OF number has been somewhat stable over the past two seasons.

All the talk from Cardinal brass points to the acquisition of a big bat. Bryce Harper is tossed around in rumors every day. Josh Donaldson has consistently been labeled as what would’ve been the backup plan, had everything else fallen through. Everyone from national reporters to the Post-Dispatch’s writers have indicated that a Paul Goldschmidt trade is being discussed.

The point is, it looks like the Cards are primed to add a slugger. If that slugger can play defense anywhere near replacement level (which the aforementioned options can), Martínez’s roster spot looks more and more unnecessary.

Touting a bat that finished 2018 with 125 wRC+, Martínez needs to be in an everyday lineup, not taking the occasional at-bat off the bench behind Bader, Ozuna, Fowler, O’Neill, et al.

The problem has always been that, if we fans can see that Martínez’s defense is rough, front offices can definitely see the same. That’s why he’s tailor-made for a DH spot.

Moreover, we’re less than two weeks out from the Winter Meetings, the proverbial launch pad for trade activity in the offseason, where GMs really get a chance to sit down and talk shop. Here’s a look at the most likely suitors for Cafecito, given team needs and organizational relations.

Oakland Athletics

The Cards and the A’s have both traditionally followed the same model: Try to bring up strong talent in-house and lock them up on cheap extensions.

The teams connected on last year’s feel-good trade of the winter, sending Stephen Piscotty back to the Bay Area to be close to his mother, Gretchen, in her final days. In return, the Cards picked up current bench piece Yairo Muñoz and middle infield prospect Max Schrock.

The A’s now have Khris Davis serving as a booming bat and a bastion of consistency, having his best offensive season yet with 48 homers and 135 wRC+ in 2018.

The issue with Davis is that he is entering his walk year, and RosterResource projects him to be paid just over $18 million in the coming season, if his salary is settled at an arbitration hearing.

As we mentioned, Oakland doesn’t like to spend that kind of money on players. José Martínez may offer the solution to the A’s wallet woes.

Martínez will become arbitration eligible next offseason. Even then, he’s yet to have the kind of breakout that would warrant the type of payday Davis is set to receive. The A’s could use Martínez in a mixed DH/position player role for 2019 before shifting him to DH alone in 2020 and beyond.

Seattle Mariners

The Cards and the Mariners have linked up pretty consistently the past few years. Tyler O’Neill, Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake, Sam Tuivailala...it isn’t just a St. Louis-Seattle connection, though.

Jerry Dipoto and John Mozeliak have a clear history of connecting on trades.

Dipoto was at the helm for the Angels when they traded for David Freese (and Fernando Salas), sending Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk to St. Louis.

It’s a common jab at Dipoto that he has an itch to make trades, and he’s proven that with his moves already this offseason, sending James Paxton to the Yankees and reportedly shopping Robinson Cano.

With Nelson Cruz gone to free agency, the M’s actually have a spot in their lineup where a guy like Martínez would fit in perfectly. At this point, Dan Vogelbach projects to fill the DH role, finishing 2018 with a 99 wRC+. Though Martínez may not have the same offensive resume as Cruz, he’s a bit younger and offers control, with more upside than internal options.

Cleveland Indians

This one’s a bit less obvious.

Cleveland has Yonder Alonso manning first base and Edwin Encarnación holding down the DH role.

And I know, we spent a good portion of time in the beginning talking about how Martínez’s glove is a liability.

But have you seen Cleveland’s projected outfield?

At this point, RosterResource projects the starting three to be Leonys Martín, Greg Allen and Tyler Naquin.

Only Martín put up positive value at the dish last season, and he’s a potential non-tender candidate.

Cleveland may be ready to go out and spend on a free agent outfielder. But, at this point, Martínez would be a major upgrade to their outfield, even with the poor glove.

To build on that, Encarnación is nearing his age-36 season and experienced a pretty significant drop-off in production last year, even though he was still a productive hitter. With a $20 million club option looming for 2020, trading for Martínez would provide a safety net if they want to cut the aging slugger loose after this season.

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays are in the same vein as the Cardinals and Athletics when it comes to payroll strategy, but they take it to a new level.

They DFA’d Corey Dickerson before last season, eventually working out a modest swap with Pittsburgh, where Dickerson posted a 115 wRC+ last year. They traded for C.J. Cron after that DFA, who then put up 122 wRC+ over the course of the season.

They just designated Cron, as well.

The clear reason for both of these decisions was that the players were due for raises, and Tampa Bay didn’t want to pay them.

Enter José Martínez.

The Cards already made a notable swap with the Rays last year, sending Tommy Pham to the Sunshine State for a slew of prospects. Martínez fits with their business model, in that he hasn’t had enough of a breakout to warrant a major payday.

How the lineup would shift given Martínez’s acquisition is unclear, as journeyman Ji-Man Choi had what could be considered a breakout year with Tampa Bay, and he projects to fill the DH spot.

Former top prospect Jake Bauers had a modest showing in 96 games with the Rays in 2018, but given the organization’s commitment to youth and control, one would expect him to see considerable time at first.

Still, Choi hasn’t been bad at first base in his career, and that could see Bauers shift into more of a part-time role, if Martínez was added.

More so, Martínez has a bit more of a track record than Choi, who could still flop headed into 2019.