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Exploring a Jose Martinez Trade

Would moving Cafecito at the trade deadline make sense if the Cardinals choose to sell?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Among all 144 MLB players to record at least 495 plate appearances in the past calendar year, only 11 batters have recorded a higher wRC+ than the 141 mark belonging to Jose Martinez.

  1. Mike Trout
  2. J.D. Martinez
  3. Jose Ramirez
  4. Jose Altuve
  5. Joey Votto
  6. Aaron Judge
  7. Nelson Cruz
  8. Giancarlo Stanton
  9. Freddie Freeman
  10. Nolan Arenado
  11. Kris Bryant

You get my point. The whole hitting baseballs thing? Jose Martinez is pretty good at it. As for the rest of his job description–particularly the part where he plays defense–that’s a different story. In fact, if you scaled those same 144 players’ numbers to a 600 plate appearance basis, Martinez ranks dead last in FanGraphs’ defensive runs above average metric.

FanGraphs calculates the defensive component of fWAR by adding a player’s fielding performance relative to the average at that position (UZR) to a positional adjustment. After all, an average defensive catcher is much more valuable than an average fielding first baseman. The adjustments for a full season of work (162 defensive games, or 1458 innings) are -12.5 runs at first base, -7.5 runs for corner outfielders, and -17.5 runs for a DH. This means that for Martinez to produce more value by playing in the field, he would need to be at most five runs below average as a first baseman and at most 10 runs below average in left or right field. These positional adjustments are far from perfect, but they are probably as good of a publicly available proxy as we are going to find.

Admittedly, we don’t have the luxury of ample sample sizes that I would feel comfortable drawing any significant conclusions from, but Martinez’s UZR/1458 innings is -9.3 runs as a first baseman and -20.1 runs in the outfield. Even in just over 300 big league innings between left and right field, it has become apparent that sticking Martinez in the outfield isn’t a viable option. Perhaps there is hope that his play at first base–which DRS, another popular fielding metric, rates even more bearishly at -14.3 runs/1458 innings–can improve with more experience at the position. That said, neither the stats, the eye test, nor Father Time–Martinez turns 30 next month–bode well for his prospects in the field.

Long story short: Jose Martinez could legitimately be worth at least half a win more on an American League team with the DH at its disposal. His career defensive value to date is -24.1 runs/162 games, which still equates to about 0.6 wins worse than DH-ing after downsizing those numbers to, say, 140 games. This is before accounting for the fact that my previous research indicates a player’s age 29-33 years are when he experiences a particularly steep decline in fielding performance. While the -17.5 runs/162 games at DH is a constant no matter how poorly Martinez ages, he will (in theory) only become a progressively worse fielder, further widening the gap between his value on an NL versus AL club as he grows older.

So the Cardinals have a slugger with MLB success against both lefties and righties who is under team control at a suppressed cost through 2022. The Cardinals’ playoff odds at FanGraphs have crept back up from a season-low 31.7% after Friday’s loss to 41.3% following last night’s victory over Cleveland. St. Louis’ current trajectory will likely result in “another generic reliever acquisition this July” as John LaRue wrote in his excellent trade season primer, but a rough next few weeks paired with a couple of the teams ahead of the Cardinals pulling away in the standings could very well prompt the type of quasi-rebuild Ben Godar outlined in his great article last week. Players on shorter-term deals like Bud Norris and Greg Holland would almost definitely be the first ones shopped around, but what type of return could Martinez net?

If you have been reading Viva El Birdos for any meaningful duration of time, there is a good chance you are well-versed in the spiel about surplus value. Using a hybrid between the updated Steamer and ZiPS projections, a homemade average aging curve, the current price for one WAR on the open market, a 6% annual inflation rate, an annual discount of 6% on future salary and 8% for future production, the doubled market price for wins at the trade deadline, and historical trends in arbitration payouts, we can number-crunch our way to a snapshot of Jose Martinez’s trade value. At its core, surplus value compares a player’s actual salary to the market value price for his level of production. Discounted surplus value simply factors in the principle that present-day production is more valuable than future production. In other words, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

But first, some quick technical notes:

  • According to the aforementioned Point of Pittsburgh research concerning arbitration salaries, Martinez “should be” projected to earn about $2.2 million in 2021, a $700,000 or so decline from the previous season. Instead, I multiplied his first arbitration salary by 1.6 to mimic the 25% to 40% increase in salary (detailed in the same Point of Pittsburgh article) awarded relative to market value. I figured this fairly minor decision on my part would be accurate enough to provide us a ballpark estimate and not skew Martinez’s total valuation too much.
  • Because we are trying to quantify Martinez’s value as a potential trade asset, I adjusted his WAR numbers to reflect him playing DH for his new team, presumably an American League buyer. This benefit of not having to take the field increases as Martinez moves deeper into his thirties and his fielding at first base and/or in the outfield worsens.
  • I reduced Martinez’s remaining 2018 salary and WAR since a trade involving him probably wouldn’t occur until late July.
  • Martinez projects to essentially be a replacement-level player in 2022, at which point he would hypothetically be non-tendered. Consequentially, his surplus value for that year is listed as $0.
  • I want to give a huge shoutout to Ian Malinowski of DRaysBay, whose much cleaner surplus value spreadsheet I borrowed. Seriously, you should not trust me to keep a multi-tab Google Sheets file orderly and organized.

Jose Martinez’s Trade Value

Category (all $ in millions) 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 Total
Category (all $ in millions) 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 Total
Age 29 30 31 32 33 N/A
Cost per WAR $22.0 $11.7 $12.4 $13.1 $13.9 N/A
Projected WAR 0.7 1.5 1.0 0.4 0.0 3.6
Market Value $15.7 $17.8 $11.8 $5.4 $0.0 50.8
Salary $0.2 $0.6 $2.9 $4.6 $0.0 8.3
Surplus Value $15.5 $17.3 $8.9 $0.8 $0.0 42.5
Discounted Surplus Value $15.5 $15.9 $7.4 $0.4 $0.0 39.1

Jose Martinez projects to be worth $39.1 in surplus value after applying a discount for future production. The question you may be rightfully asking yourself is: okay, but what does that actually mean? That is approximately equivalent to the 26th most valuable prospect in baseball, or both the 67th and 68th prospects in the aggregate rankings I complied last month. In the context of current Cardinals players, I calculated Miles Mikolas’ discounted surplus value at $42.3 million.

So we have established that Jose Martinez is a pretty valuable ballplayer, especially in the American League. Arguably the largest hurdle to clear would be finding a suitor to conduct business with. If we assume Martinez is indeed more valuable as a DH, that instantly takes 14 of the 29 potential buyers out of the running. As for the 15 AL teams, the distinct possibility exists that an extreme buyer’s market will develop in the forthcoming weeks.

Here is every AL club’s current playoff odds, team WAR posted thus far at DH, and projected WAR at the position for the remainder of the season.

American League Teams by Strength at DH

Team Playoff Odds 2018 bWAR Projected WAR
Team Playoff Odds 2018 bWAR Projected WAR
Yankees 100.0% 1.8 1.5
Mariners 71.6% 2.0 1.4
Red Sox 99.7% 1.5 1.1
Indians 98.3% 1.0 1.0
Athletics 7.6% 1.0 0.9
Rangers 0.1% 2.0 0.7
Blue Jays 4.3% 0.6 0.6
Astros 100.0% 1.6 0.5
Twins 4.9% 0.1 0.4
Royals 0.0% 0.8 0.3
Orioles 0.0% 0.1 0.3
Rays 1.1% 1.0 0.1
Angels 12.4% 1.8 0.0
White Sox 0.0% 0.7 -0.3
Tigers 0.0% -0.8 -0.3

That is a lot of information to digest in one table, so I broke things down through color coding in the image below. Dark green represents a higher number while dark red signifies a lower value.

The Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, and Astros are all virtually locks to secure four of the AL’s five postseason spots. New York and Boston are in a dogfight to claim their division crown and avoid the single-elimination Wild Card Game, but neither has much of a need for a DH bat. The Indians have Edwin Encarnacion manning their DH duties, and they are unlikely to pay up merely to platoon Martinez and Yonder Alonso at first base. Houston doesn’t project to be great at DH going forward, but how much of an upgrade would Martinez be over impending free agent Evan Gattis? Besides, the Astros will look to focus their trade deadline efforts and resources on beefing up their bullpen.

Meanwhile, Seattle’s incumbent DH and local World Series hero Nelson Cruz will have the Mariners eyeing pitching reinforcements this July. And then we turn to the Angels. It remains unclear exactly how much Los Angeles can expect from Shohei Ohtani this season, but the more intriguing question arises when discussing Albert Pujols. Since May 19th, he has actually posted a 102 wRC+ (!!!–wow it feels depressing that marginally above-average hitting from Pujols excites me now) and has been making plenty of hard contact as documented by Rick Souddress at Halos Haven. I’m not sure pursuing Martinez would make all that much sense for the Angels in the long-haul either, especially as their playoff probability this year–the season in which almost 40% of Martinez’s future value is tied up–continues to dip.

Everything about Jose Martinez and his career arc to this point is utterly fascinating. Don’t get me wrong, I love his joyful energy and watching him hit as much as the next red-glasses-wearing homer, but sometimes you have to separate your emotions from what is the right baseball move, which just might be capitalizing on Martinez’s additional value to an AL team. Granted, this entire article likely becomes moot if the Cardinals hang around in contention and buy at the deadline, but I would be inclined to bet against the ideal trade market for a player of Martinez’s one-dimensional skillset forming this summer anyways.