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MLB free agents: Diamondbacks look foolish for missing out on J.D. Martinez

It’s mystifying that the Diamondbacks didn’t fork over the necessary cash to beat Boston’s offer.

Let’s say you’re running a baseball team. Your team just came out of nowhere and had a 93-win season. The talented core you assembled over the years was finally all relatively healthy at the same time.

The few free agent signings you’ve made of late paid off well, and you made a few shrewd trades. Things went swimmingly, especially once you brought in a big slugger in a midseason trade and he went absolutely bonkers. Times are good, but that slugger just hit free agency. Your core is still mostly intact, but your players are getting older and there isn’t a lot going on in your farm system. Your contention window may only be open for another few years.

What do you do?

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That’s exactly the situation the Diamondbacks found themselves in after the 2017 season. Arizona rollicked to a Wild-Card berth and a trip to the NLDS just a year after losing 93 games. Along the way, the Dbacks picked up J.D. Martinez, who stretched their lineup and provided sorely needed thump. Martinez became a free agent at the end of the season, and now he’s finally gotten another job. He’s going to play in Boston, not Arizona. It looks like a serious blow to the Diamondbacks, and one that was in all likelihood avoidable.

The Red Sox signed Martinez to front-loaded five-year, $110 million deal with opt-outs after the second and third seasons. While the agreement gives Martinez a degree of control over his future, it’s still largely a win for the Red Sox given that he’s going to be 30 this season and he’ll likely have to perform exceptionally well for opting out to be worth it. In all likelihood, Martinez is going to be in Boston for the next five years, and at far lower a cost than most expected.

This brings us back to the Diamondbacks. Arizona was clearly a good team without Martinez last year. They were downright scary with him. Nobody expects him to continue hitting like he did after the trade (a hilarious 29 homers in 62 games), but he’s been one of the five best hitters in baseball by wRC+ since his breakout in 2014. The four guys above him (in ascending order; Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Votto and Mike Trout) all have at least one MVP award in their careers. Martinez probably isn’t about to win an MVP given his proclivity for missing chunks of games and his less-than-ideal defense, but he’s someone you love to have in your lineup. It’s mystifying that the Diamondbacks didn’t fork over the necessary cash to beat Boston’s offer.

As things stand, the first four batters in the Arizona lineup will be David Peralta, A.J. Pollock, Paul Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb. That’s a good place to start, and Ketel Marte may find himself in the leadoff spot if he hits like he did in 2017. It gets a less inspiring after them, though. Alex Avila just had a major offensive resurgence, but whether he’ll keep it up is anyone’s guess. Yasmany Tomas is probably on the small side of a platoon with the newly signed Jarrod Dyson, who’s more known for his defense and baserunning than his bat. Chris Owings doesn’t hit much at all.

The lineup was so much more threatening with Martinez involved, especially given Lamb’s track record of not hitting well after the All-Star break. Arizona is a win-now team in every sense of the phrase, and Martinez was the most blatantly obvious target for them. The NL West figures to be a punishing division this year. The Dodgers, Rockies and Giants are all aiming for the playoffs, and the Padres may only get better as the season goes along and their premium prospects start to surface in the big leagues. One would think that retaining one of the best bats in baseball would have been an at-all-costs goal for the Diamondbacks.

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On top of that, the Diamondbacks may not have that much longer to shoot for the World Series. Pollock is in his walk year, as is Patrick Corbin. Goldschmidt has a team option that will almost surely be picked up, but will be a free agent after the 2019 season. Zack Greinke will be 35 in Goldschmidt’s final season of control.

There isn’t much help waiting on the farm, either. Jon Duplantier is a good pitching prospect and isn’t too far away, but projects as more of a mid-rotation workhorse than a frontline weapon. Pavin Smith, their 2017 first-rounder, was one of the best bats in college and could move quickly, but is blocked by Goldschmidt and lacks the power that’s traditionally sought in a first baseman. The other prospects of note are all a ways away, seem to lack impact upside, and will require long years of development.

Arizona doesn’t look to be set up for a long run of success buoyed by an influx of young talent, like the Cubs have been and the Yankees are about to be. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course. Not every team can have a prospect-fueled dynasty.

The key, however, is capitalizing when the chance arises. Martinez is a rare breed of hitter, and Arizona only has so many cracks at this. This isn’t to say that Dyson is a poor addition. He provides value in his own way, and a fair amount of value at that. And given that the Diamondbacks are installing a humidor to keep the ball from flying as much, defense is going to be more valuable at Chase Field because fewer balls will be going over the wall, and that means more balls in play. Martinez has defensive deficiencies, and Dyson can go get it with the best of them. Dyson can also turn more of those balls in play into doubles and triples.

If one had to choose between the two players, though, Martinez likely wins almost every time. The Diamondbacks just intentionally depressed their own offensive environment to make life easier for their pitchers, and given that their lineup doesn’t inspire a great deal of fear outside of the first four, a big bat would have been a godsend.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Arizona passed on Martinez. Even if his $110 million contract is smaller than expected, it’s a lot of money. Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick doesn’t exactly have a history of shelling out for nine-figure deals outside of the surprise signing of Greinke two winters ago. And even then, the Diamondbacks were reportedly trying to find a trade partner to take Greinke (and more importantly, his salary) off their hands earlier in the offseason.

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Why would a team that just made the playoffs, largely because of the excellent pitching of their ace, be trying to trade that ace away when the team’s window is small and shrinking fast? Why would the team let itself be outbid for one of baseball’s best hitters, who had just worn the team’s uniform and helped it reach the postseason? Why would the team make a fuss about apparently being in desperate need of a new stadium, when the current one is more than adequate?

Finding the answer is as easy as looking at your credit card, and it would be hard for Kendrick to make the case for Arizona taxpayers to fund his new stadium while displaying the spending prowess of his wallet to beef up his roster.

The Diamondbacks should still be a formidable team without Martinez. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system projects them for 86 wins, and they may not be done making additions. Even with the free-agent market finally heating up, there are still options available. Neil Walker could provide more than adequate offense at second base and push Owings to the bench. Jon Jay or Cameron Maybin could be attractive spare outfielders.

Arizona will still be fun to watch, and will still be a chore to play against. Yet it’s hard to understand why a team in the Diamondbacks’ position let themselves be outbid for such a vital player when all he would have cost was money.