SEATTLE — Boston Red Sox outfielder J.D. Martinez should feel vindicated. After an offseason in which numerous people tried to pick apart his game, Martinez is performing better than ever. He’s transformed the Red Sox’s offense from punchless to powerful, and is a big reason the team is tied for the most wins in baseball.
But Martinez can’t allow himself to celebrate just yet. Because every time he remembers what he went through during the offseason, he realizes there’s still more work to do — both for himself on the field and for a sport that many believe is on the brink of a labor war.
As players from all 30 Major League Baseball teams reported to spring training, Martinez was nowhere to be found. The slugger who had turned himself into one of the best hitters in baseball over the past four seasons remained unsigned. No one wanted him.
He wasn’t the only one. Mike Moustakas, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, and Jonathan Lucroy — among others — were unemployed as camps opened. That group combined for seven All-Star appearances and a Cy Young award over their careers.
This was unusual. In previous years, you might see one standout player go this deep into free agency unsigned. It was nearly unprecedented to see so much talent still available as camps opened.
The lack of activity was so great some even suggested one of baseball’s dirtiest words: Collusion.
Martinez had a different word for it.
“It was a joke,” Martinez told Yahoo Sports. “The way this whole baseball thing is going, to me, it’s a shame.”
Martinez came into the offseason as the best position player on the market. After hitting .300/.362/.574, with 128 home runs, over the past four seasons, there were rumors Martinez was seeking a contract worth over $200 million.
He remained on the market until spring training was in full swing. Days after camps opened, Martinez signed a five-year, $110 million deal with the Red Sox.
In the early going, Martinez has been well worth the money. The 30-year-old is hitting .315/.386/.623, with 22 home runs, over 308 plate appearances. Thanks to his contributions, the Red Sox are 50-26 — tied for the most wins in baseball.
While the season has been a success, Martinez still has some frustrations about the way things played out this winter.
“I think free agency really opens up a player’s eyes to markets out there and the business side of it — which is the ugly side,” he says. “When you’re young, you really don’t know any of that.
“Once you start getting into the dollars and you start talking about that, then you start seeing teams come out and say how they really feel about you.”
It wasn’t just teams tearing him down. As the weeks went on, Martinez started to see articles suggesting he was a limited player who wasn’t worth the money. That only led to more questions.
“For some reason, the media wants to lower your value,” he says. “You see it all over MLB and you’re just like, ‘Dude, what did I ever do to these people?’
“It’s very fishy. The people who say it, and who they work for and stuff like that.”
While $110 million is a lot of money to the average person, it was a telling figure in the baseball world. With spending limits placed on the draft and the international market, and the luxury tax acting as a salary cap, free agency has become the only place owners and general managers can spend to improve their club.
When Martinez failed to exceed contracts given to Yoenis Cespedes, Chris Davis, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton in recent seasons, that raised some eyebrows. If teams suddenly weren’t going to spend money on the market, they weren’t going to spend it at all.
As a result, a number of teams willingly entering the season with no intention of contending.
“You have more teams now trying to tank than trying to win,” Martinez says. “We were talking about it the other day … every four series you play one team and you’re like, ‘OK, this is a good team.’
“Other teams are, like, it’s still a major-league team, but it’s different. To me, it’s sad for the sport.”
Martinez is doing everything he can to reverse that trend. Off the field, he’s talking about the issue to make sure no one forgets what happened. On the field, his contributions are proof that spending big for free agents can pay off.
One player’s performance isn’t going to spur change within the league. Martinez has concerns about the way the game is trending. He worries about how quickly people have moved past the slow offseason. He’s not sure the average fan understands what’s at stake.
Vindication won’t come until those issues are resolved. That might take awhile, but Martinez knows how to handle a long wait.
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