I just love Jose Martinez. The dude’s smile is infectious and you can tell that he truly loves the game of baseball. And he can really hit. He is as much a “pulled himself up by his own bootstraps” guy as there is in the major leagues. He’s fought through a ton of injuries and doubts about his ability. He was cut loose by the woeful Kansas City Royals when the Cards signed him sort of on a lark. I wrote about him a bunch last offseason and made the argument that the Cardinals needed to give him 500 PA’s because he was just that good a hitter. Last year, albeit in limited PA’s, his expected wOBA was among the best in the league, up there with guys named Trout and J.D. Martinez.
He wasn’t quite as good at the plate in 2018 as he was last year but he was still really good. His wOBA this season was .356 – 2nd highest on the team to 5-win player Matt Carpenter – and he was actually quite unlucky since his expected wOBA this year was 22 points higher than that. That .378 xwOBA put him among the top 7% of hitters in the major leagues. The dude can really hit. It is no fluke that he’s been this good for 2 seasons. Look at his hard hit%, his exit velocity…whatever measures you want to use…he’s that good at the plate.
The problem, of course, is that he is truly that bad in the field. He’s just awful as an outfield corner and the Cards tried him this year at 1B and it didn’t go well. By every statistical measure, his defense at all 3 positions is terrible. And this isn’t one of those things where the metrics don’t match the eye test. It hurts to watch him play the field. By statcast metrics, he was 6 outs below average despite only playing 335 innings in the outfield. His expected catch percentage was 83%. His actual catch percentage was 76%. He was -6 Defensive Runs Saved. His UZR was “only” -1. At 1B, the absolute end of the defensive spectrum, he was 5 runs below average by DRS and -3.2 by UZR in just 675 innings (75 games or so). As good as he is as a hitter, there’s almost no way the Cards can afford to use him in the field any longer. Matt Carpenter needs to be a full-time first baseman and the outfield needs real actual outfielders to position around Harrison Bader in center. Martinez truly needs to be a full-time DH. This means he needs to be traded to an AL team.
Though Martinez is already 30 years old, he still has 4 years of team control left. He’s not even arbitration-eligible yet and as an excellent hitter, one would think that there would be several potential suitors for his services. Unfortunately, the fact that he needs to be a DH probably limits those options to just AL teams (unless some NL team wants to give him a shot in the outfield or at 1B) and about half the AL teams already have a pretty good DH situation set up.
The Red Sox have J.D. Martinez and though C.J. Cron isn’t a great player by any means, he had a solid season for the Rays and is still cost-controlled. The Yankees have Luke Voit, Greg Bird, and Miguel Andujar who could all be used at DH. The Indians have Edwin Encarnacion under a big contract and they’re not going to want him at 1B. The Astros got a lot in half a season from pre-arb guy Tyler White and the Angels will have Albert Pujols and Shohei Ohtani at DH next season. The Rangers got a lot from Shin-Soo Choo in 2018 and still owe him a ton of money and the A’s Khris Davis was outstanding in 2018 and is JMart-awful in the outfield. That basically eliminates half the AL.
I’m not sure the White Sox would have much interest since they still have Jose Abreu under contract and need him and Matt Davidson to play 1B. They could move Davidson to 3rd but he’s pretty terrible there and young Yolmer Sanchez was adequate at the hot corner in 2018. There’s a decent argument to be made that Martinez would immediately become Sox’s best hitter so maybe there would be some interest but it’s not really clear that there would be a ton of demand even with his skill at the plate and his favorable contract. Let’s face it, the Cards tried and failed to find a trade for Martinez at the trade deadline but were unable to.
Still, there’s got to be someone who would be interested. That leaves us with the O’s, the Blue Jays, the Royals, the Tigers, the Twins, and the Mariners. The Mariners got a lot from Nelson Cruz in 2018 but he’s a free agent and perhaps the M’s would rather trade for Martinez than sign Cruz. The Twins were reported to have been interested in Martinez at the trade deadline and probably see an opening in the pathetically weak AL Central since the Indians’ window appears to be closing.
The Cardinals have 2 obvious needs. The first is a star to stick in their lineup. They’re obviously not going to fill that hole by trading Martinez. The other is in the bullpen, as I’ve spent a lot of time detailing over the last couple of weeks. Surely there is a reliever or 2 on one of these teams that the Cardinals could use somewhere in the middle innings just to provide the team some depth if nothing else.
Let’s start with the Twins. They’ve got 2 relievers who might be obtainable and might be solid additions to the Cards’ pen. The first, the guy I like the most is Trevor May. May has struck out more than 30% of the hitters he faced in both 2016 and 2018. (He missed 2017 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.) May throws 4 pitches but his changeup is really his money pitch. He threw it 18.5% of the time in 2018 and batters had a .059 wOBA on the pitch. His fastball is no slouch either, averaging 94 mph, and batters whiffed on the heater nearly 35% of the time. Here’s a shot of May using that fastball to paint the corner when he’s not using it to set up his changeup.
The Cards might have to toss in another piece in order to get May, but this guy could be a late-inning option if the team can grab him. He’s 2nd-time arbitration eligible this offseason making him a free agent after the 2020 season.
The other Twin who’s interesting is Trevor Hildenberger. I’ll admit that he’s not as good as May but it’s hard to estimate what Martinez’s trade value actually is. The Cards might have to settle for the other Trevor whose K-BB% was 22.3% in 2017 but just 13.8% in 2018. He’s a ground ball guy with a career 50.6% GB rate from his sinker, changeup, and slider. His sinker averages just 89 mph but because it’s such a low spin rate pitch, he’s able to get a ton of ground balls. The average launch angle on that sinker is just 4 degrees. His strikeout pitch is his changeup which is also a low-spin rate pitch that generates whiffs on more than 45% of the offerings. Like Martinez, Hildenberger has 4 years of team control and could be an interesting mid-inning possibility.
The Royals have got to need good hitters wherever they can find them and would surely be interested in a guy like Martinez. Lefty Tim Hill could be another guy who could be a big help to the Cards’ bullpen. The 2018 season was Hill’s first in the big leagues and he put together a season where he struck out 21% of the hitters he faced, walked just 7%, and had nearly a 62% GB rate. The Cards need a guy who can get lefties out and Hill is just such a guy as he held lefties to a .245 wOBA in 2018 but he managed to hold his own against righties as well. Even though the wOBA vs. righties was .344, his expected wOBA was just .301. Hill gets ground balls with his sinker and 4-seamer as both generated average launch angles that were negative in 2018 and he gets whiffs with his slider which generated swings-and-misses at nearly a 30% rate. The key to Hill’s success is the arm angle that hitters don’t see very often. You can see from the gifs below how it can fool batters from either side of the plate.
Because of the fact that Hill was just about the only dependable reliever the Royals had and the fact that he has 5 years of team control, the team may leave him off limits.
Maybe the best known option who might be available is the Orioles’ Mychal Givens. Givens has been an excellent reliver for 3 years and was actually not quite as good in 2018 as he was in 2016 and 2017. Even so, he struck out about a quarter of the hitters he faced and walked fewer than 10% of batters last season. Givens’ primary offering is a 4-seamer that he throws 75% of the time with malice aforethought. The pitch averages 95.1 mph and generates whiffs at a 23% rate. He throws his slider and changeup the other 25% of the time and each of those pitches generates swings-and-misses more than 30% of the time, probably because batters have to be keyed up for the big fastball. Here you can see how he can use that slider to get K’s in much the same way Jordan Hicks uses his after setting batters up with their good, hard fastballs.
Givens is an outstanding reliever who might require the Cardinals to pony up more than Martinez to acquire. He has 3 years of team control left.
If the Mariners do choose to move away from Cruz then Martinez could be a DH option for them. Their pen is pretty loaded and so they might be willing to part with either Nick Vincent or James Pazos in a trade. (It’s also conceivable that they might be interested in trading Juan Nicasio to the Cards but he just has 1 year left on his 2-year deal. Though he’s good, the Cards might be able to get more for Martinez.) Both Vincent and Pazos have had a better than average K-BB% each of the last 2 seasons. Vincent is a righty and Pazos is a lefty. Vincent will be a free agent in just 1 year but Pazos has 4 years of team control remaining.
Vincent is basically a 4-seamer, cutter guy who somehow managed a 30% whiff rate on his 4-seamer in 2018 despite the fact that it averages just 89 mph. That pitch manages to elude solid contact because of its relatively high spin rate (2345 rpm) that finishes in the top quartile of 4-seam fastballs. His cutter also has a pretty good whiff rate because of its relatively high spin rate as well. You can see in the gif below that, because of that spin rate, he can throw it at the top of the zone and still get K’s with it. Not many pitchers can throw 89 up in the zone and get away with it but Vincent can.
Pazos, the lefty, would be another good fit in a bullpen who needs a good southpaw. He has had 2 good seasons in the big leagues and, like Hill, generates a ton of outs with a sinker he throws more than 90% of the time. He’s used that sinker to get ground balls on about 48% of his balls in play in his 2 years in the majors and had a 20% whiff rate on the pitch in 2018. The sinker helps Pazos be effective against all hitters and he was actually tougher against righties than lefties last season. Still, he’s a guy you’d have to think could get Votto, Rizzo, and Yelich out when called upon.
The Blue Jays’ Ryan Tepera also might be of interest to the Cardinals. Tepera has been remarkably consistent each of the last 2 years, striking out more than a quarter of the hitters he’s faced and walking just under 10%. The Jays’ righty basically splits 3 pitches evenly by throwing his cutter, his sinker, and his 4-seamer about 30% of the time. The sinker and 4-seamer both chime in at about 95 mph with the 4-seamer getting more whiffs (26%) and the sinker unsurprisingly generating more ground balls (avg. launch angle of 4 degrees). His best pitch, however, is a cutter he throws at 89 mph and gets whiffs 43.5% of the time. He should actually probably throw more cutters and sinkers and fewer 4-seamers since it’s the 4-seamer that gets hit the hardest. The expected wOBA on the 4-seamer was more than 100 points higher than either of the other 2 pitches. Tepera is under team control for 3 more seasons.
Again, it’s difficult to estimate what Martinez’s trade value actually is but I’d have to believe that there are teams in the AL who could use his kind of bat and would also be willing to give up a decent reliever to get him. There just aren’t that many hitters of his caliber on the market with 4 years of cheap team control. Even if the Cards can’t acquire one of the guys I’ve mentioned here, these teams also have some more expensive relievers who’ve been pretty good in the past who might interest the Cardinals (the Mariners’ Nicasio, the Twins’ Addison Reed, and the Jays’ Ken Giles). The Cardinals need relievers and Martinez has to be considered a legitimate chip to help them get one.
I used lots of fantastic data from baseball savant and fangraphs for this piece.
All the great pics and the fantastic gifs come courtesy of @cardinalsgifs. He is the best in the business.
Thanks to all for reading.