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2019 VEB Community Projections: José Martínez

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Does Cafecito’s offensive output outweigh his defensive struggles?

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at Detroit Tigers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Just about every aspect of José Martínez’s professional baseball career carries an interesting storyline.

Beginning his professional career in 2006, Martínez didn’t see his first major league plate appearance until a decade later.

In retrospect, it’s amazing to see how he was overlooked so many times. He hit well at every level. Three of his five teams were in the American League, where his bat could’ve carried him.

It’s good for us that no one saw the potential. After the Cardinals took him across the state from the Royals for cash, he had seven hits and two walks in 18 plate appearances to end 2016. Pretty eye-catching.

Martínez played a reserve role in 2017, totaling 1.6 fWAR in 307 PA. In 2018, he was worth 2.3 fWAR in nearly 600 trips to the plate, despite a rough go of things with the glove.

That lack of average defense is what makes it so difficult to find a place for him.

His ability with the bat is undeniable. His major league slash line, spanning 910 PA, is .309/.372/.478.

I wrote about the changes in Martínez’s approach at the plate last May—mainly that he was combining a drop in launch angle, an opposite-field approach and elite plate discipline to shift his profile.

According to Baseball Savant, Martínez’s 2018 xwOBA of .377 was in the top six percent of the league. To think that a hitter with a career 130 wRC+ isn’t a mainstay on the lineup card seems ridiculous.

It’s the reality on this National League club, with former Gold Glove winner Paul Goldschmidt at first base and a combination of a commitment to Dexter Fowler and an outfield youth movement complicating things in right field.

It’s the main reason that Martínez has been talked about as an AL trade chip nearly the entire time he’s been a productive major leaguer.

It’s clear that he wants to be a Cardinal; he’s said as much on multiple occasions. He signed a two-year deal with St. Louis earlier this spring, buying out one of his arbitration years in the process.

There was a lot of praise for the Cardinals regarding that deal, seen by many as the team bettering his immediate financial situation and showing a commitment to Martínez as a roster piece.

The Cardinals really might have saved money in the long run.

The combined $3.25 million Martínez will make in 2019 and 2020 is equal to the single-year salary settlement for Michael A. Taylor from this year’s arbitration hearing with the Nationals, which he lost.

If anything, a pre-determined salary (under $3 million) for Martínez’s first year of arbitration makes the excellent hitter more appealing to those DH-bearing teams, especially as a trade deadline addition.

But for now, Martínez is a Cardinal. One who has at least a bench role locked down headed into the season. The question will be where he gets his playing time.

Last season’s first base experiment was a bit of a disaster—over 675.1 innings, Martínez had -5 DRS and a -4.3 UZR/150. Defensive metrics usually take a while to stabilize, but it’s not a hot take to say he failed the eye test at first as well.

What’s intriguing is that he’s been discussed as the team’s backup right fielder, but he was even worse in that spot last season. In about half of the innings he logged at first, Martínez had -6 DRS in right. His arm graded well, but that was it.

Martínez played some left field in 2016 and 2017, but it wasn’t much better. His career numbers over 637.2 outfield innings are -13 DRS and a -10.6 UZR/150.

José Martínez is an intriguing player on an interesting roster in an important year for the team.

His bat is one of the best in the league. His glove is one of the worst. He’s signed a two-year deal, but it doesn’t guarantee he’ll remain a Cardinal. He’s shown he can be a productive major leaguer, but is the offense worth the defense?

What do you think? Let us know how much playing time you expect for Cafecito, and how productive he’ll be in those chances.