It wasn’t an “Open For Business” sign, as his mentor Roland Hemond once hung on a table in a lobby at winter meetings long ago. But Dave Dombrowski sat in a hotel suite in Orlando, Florida, in December, pointed to a list of players in his jacket pocket, and said for all the world to hear that the Boston Red Sox were ready to make offseason deals.
“We know who we want,” Dombrowski said. “But you’re in touch with two things: the trade market and also the free-agency market. You don’t control those by yourself.”
A month later, the Red Sox still have all the same needs, namely a big hitter for the middle of the order, and the list in Dombrowski’s sport coat is getting smaller, albeit at a historically slow pace.
And so, with the team’s annual winter festival set to begin tonight at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Connecticut — and with 25 days left until pitchers and catchers report to spring training — where exactly do things stand with top free-agent target J.D. Martinez and Boston’s other offseason pursuits?
How much do the Red Sox really need Martinez anyway?
Oh, only about as much as they need to win a playoff series.
Consider this: Of the record 74 players who smashed at least 25 home runs last season, none plays for the Red Sox. And this: Martinez went deep more often after the All-Star break (31 times) than any Sox hitter did all year. And this: Boston just finished last in the American League in homers for the first time since Mookie Betts was in diapers.
It has been 15 months since David Ortiz retired and just as long since the Red Sox had a true threat in the middle of the order. No wonder television ratings on the team-owned New England Sports Network have declined by 15 percent since 2016.
Martinez might just be the Ortiz of his generation, too, a student of hitting who discovered his power in his mid-20s after getting released. Over the past four years, only he and Mike Trout have hit .300 with at least 125 homers and an adjusted OPS of 100 or better.
With Martinez, the Red Sox lineup could look like this:
Without Martinez, well, good luck.
So, what’s the holdup?
As always, it boils down to money and years. Especially the years.
Jacoby Ellsbury was 30, the same age as Martinez now, when Boras negotiated his seven-year deal with the New York Yankees in the winter of 2013-14. A few weeks later, Boras got seven years for another outfielder, Shin-Soo Choo, at age 31. Boras also brokered a nine-year contract for slugger Prince Fielder with the Dombrowski-run Detroit Tigers in 2012.
And let there be no doubt Boras wants at least seven years for Martinez, whose perch atop the Red Sox wish list is hardly a secret.
“The entire world knows, including Scott Boras, their preferred option,” a major league source said.
But the Sox don’t want Martinez so badly that they’re willing to hand over a blank check. A source told Buster Olney that they made a five-year, $100 million offer to Martinez. The Red Sox have signed position players to long-term contracts before, notably giving Pedroia an eight-year extension, but also were burned by recent free-agent deals with Carl Crawford (seven years, $142 million) and Pablo Sandoval (five years, $95.5 million).
And when it comes to Martinez, the last thing the Red Sox want to do is bid against themselves.
Speaking of which, how robust is the market for Martinez?
There’s no denying Martinez heads this class of free-agent hitters. But his timing couldn’t be worse.
With Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson poised to hit the market next year, the usual big spenders — the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, in particular — are trying to stow away cash and get their payrolls below the luxury-tax threshold in preparation for a shopping spree next winter.
Martinez seemed to have great appeal to offense-needy contenders that don’t want to wait. Aside from his talent, he was exempt from a qualifying offer because he got traded midway through last season, which means the team that signs him won’t have to give up a draft pick as compensation. But the St. Louis Cardinals traded for outfielder Marcell Ozuna, while the San Francisco Giants made swaps for third baseman Evan Longoria and outfielder Andrew McCutchen.
The Diamondbacks? They would love to bring back Martinez, given everything he did for them after the trade last summer. They even brought on Robert Van Scoyoc, Martinez’s personal hitting coach, as a consultant, and there’s a sense Martinez prefers playing the outfield to being a designated hitter. But unless general manager Mike Hazen is able to unload ace Zack Greinke, who is owed $126.5 million over the next four years, it seems unlikely Arizona can fit Martinez into its payroll.
Maybe there’s still a mystery team out there. And everyone knows Boras is an expert at creating a market when it appears a player is running out of options.
“A .690 slugging [last season]. That’s why I call him the ‘King Kong of slugging,'” Boras, in full-on sales mode, said last month. “He’s just separated himself with the greats — the [Giancarlo] Stantons, the [Mike] Trouts, all of them. There’s a 40-50 point difference.”
Do the Red Sox have other options?
Sure, but they’re slowly dwindling.
The Sox inquired about Stanton but were never in the mix because he wasn’t willing to waive his no-trade clause for them. They did explore possible swaps for Ozuna, Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu and others, including Machado. In each case, they lacked the elite upper-level prospects needed to make a deal, the farm system having been thinned by previous Dombrowski trades.
On the free-agent market, Carlos Santana signed with the Philadelphia Phillies and Jay Bruce with the New York Mets, but Logan Morrison and Lucas Duda remain as potential, if uninspiring, fall-backs. Eric Hosmer is still unsigned, too, though it’s an unlikely fit after the Red Sox re-signed first baseman Moreland last month.
The Sox have talked internally about pivoting to the pitching market, where free agents Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta are available. But the club has $63.5 million invested in David Price, Rick Porcello and Chris Sale for 2018 and is content with the starting rotation even though Drew Pomeranz and possibly Price could be free agents after the season.
If things fall through with Martinez, it’s perhaps most likely the Red Sox stand pat and hope for improved performances from Bogaerts, Ramirez, Bradley and Betts, then try to add a hitter before the trade deadline.
So, what’s going to happen?
It might take a few more weeks, perhaps even stretching into spring training, but it still makes the most sense for everyone involved that the Red Sox and Martinez get together on a deal for, say, six years and $180 million.
Both sides need each other too much for it not to happen.