J.D. Martinez signs one-year deal to DH for Mets

March 23rd, 2024

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Throughout the offseason and nearly all of Spring Training, had lingered as a plausible addition for the Mets. The team needed a designated hitter. Martinez has long been one of the best. The sides talked but could never quite line up on a deal.

That changed Thursday evening, less than a week before Opening Day. The Mets and Martinez agreed to terms on a one-year contract that sources said was worth $12 million, adding thump to a team that intends to fight for a playoff berth. The deal was made official on Saturday morning.

Right-hander Phil Bickford was designated for assignment in a corresponding move.

President of baseball operations David Stearns recently spoke about trying to “thread a needle” this offseason, balancing the ideas of contention and long-term growth. The club has always wanted to test young players such as Mark Vientos and Brett Baty to see if they might be solutions for the future. But Stearns and owner Steve Cohen also intend to compete for a playoff spot right now. The balance between pragmatism and competitiveness can tip on several factors.

In this case, Martinez’s price dropped enough to tempt the Mets, who had been content to enter the season with Baty as their regular third baseman, Vientos as their DH, and (most likely) one of DJ Stewart or Ji Man Choi on their bench. Stearns and Cohen weren’t interested in a 36-year-old Martinez at any price point, but at $12 million, they pounced. A portion of that money is deferred, a source said, minimizing the Competitive Balance Tax impact for a club that was already over Major League Baseball’s highest CBT threshold.

Earlier this offseason, Martinez reportedly sought a $20 million contract. Last month, he turned down a one-year, $14 million offer from the Giants, who subsequently signed Jorge Soler. The Mets lingered as a suitor, but a reluctant one; as recently as Sunday, Cohen said during a wide-ranging interview that “it’s getting a little late to add.”

The 11th-hour nature of the deal could indeed create some obstacles for the Mets, who will gauge Martinez’s readiness once he arrives in camp. If Martinez needs extra time to prepare for Opening Day, Vientos could still make the team and play frequently at the beginning of the season. But it’s clear that Martinez’s presence will eventually affect Vientos, and possibly even Baty or others. The Mets won’t have room for everyone.

They do know what they’re getting in Martinez, a steady veteran who is coming off a third consecutive All-Star campaign. Martinez hit .271/.321/.572 for the Dodgers with 33 homers in 113 games and, although he will turn 37 in August, there’s little reason to think he won’t continue to be productive at the plate. The six-time All-Star missed some time due to a groin injury last season, but he’s generally been durable over the last six seasons.

Notably, upon his return from the injured list in early September, Martinez slashed .333/.371/.679 with eight home runs over his final 21 games. He could make a significant difference for the Mets, whose DHs ranked 25th in the Majors last season with a .700 OPS.

Martinez’s performance was as solid under the hood as his surface numbers indicate. According to Statcast, his quality of contact was excellent -- his 17.1% barrel rate was his highest since ’17, and his 55.1% hard-hit rate was his highest in a season since Statcast began tracking in ’15. Both landed in the 98th percentile of qualified Major Leaguers last season.

Perhaps the only concerning part of Martinez’s 2023 performance was his strikeout rate, which jumped nearly to a career-high 31.%. His average over 13 seasons with the Astros, Tigers, Red Sox and Dodgers is 24.7%.

“J.D. is a veteran Major League player with a proven track record,” Stearns said in a statement. “His valuable bat will provide protection and extend the lineup. His addition to the club continues our commitment to compete in 2024 and beyond.”

Martinez's signing comes just as the Mets must make opt-out decisions on Choi and Luke Voit, two veteran DH types in camp on Minor League deals. Those two are now significantly less likely to make the team and will probably have to decide if they want to stay in the organization as Triple-A players, or seek employment elsewhere on the open market.

Stewart, who has an accessible Minor League option, could still crack the roster if Martinez is not ready on Opening Day.