The Cardinals' acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt landed them the game's best all-around first baseman, but it also means another premier hitter could be on the move.Jose Martinez's .306/.369/.478 batting line over the last two seasons tied him with Charlie Blackmon as baseball's 30th-best hitter by weighted runs created plus (wRC+) --
The Cardinals' acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt landed them the game's best all-around first baseman, but it also means another premier hitter could be on the move.
Jose Martinez's .306/.369/.478 batting line over the last two seasons tied him with Charlie Blackmon as baseball's 30th-best hitter by weighted runs created plus (wRC+) -- ahead of superstars like Carlos Correa, Manny Machado and Francisco Lindor -- but he still had to struggle for full playing time in a crowded St. Louis mix with Matt Carpenter at first base and William Fowler, Harrison Bader, Tyler O'Neill and Marcell Ozuna in the outfield. Goldschmidt's addition shuts Martinez out at first and probably pushes him behind Fowler (still owed nearly $50 million over the next three seasons) in right field, so he's back to scrapping for playing time after an excellent 2018 season.
Cardinals fans know that Martinez would have an easier time getting into the lineup if he had a more capable glove; he rated as one of MLB's worst right fielders in both defensive runs saved and Statcast™'s Outs Above Average (OAA) metric while also rating as a below-average first baseman.
Still, Martinez's bat is too potent for rival clubs to ignore. Beyond the batting line, Martinez has made hard contact (an exit velocity of at least 95 mph) on 44.2 percent of the balls he's put in play since the start of 2017, essentially tying him with Bryce Harper within the top 10 percent of 228 qualified hitters. He's barreled 9.8 percent of those batted balls, good enough for the top 25 percent of that same group.
Martinez is rare in that his power hasn't been saddled with whiffs; he's recorded an upper-third contact rate since 2017, per Statcast™, along with a below-average 18.3-percent strikeout rate. That elite combination of power and contact has added up to a .312 expected batting average (xBA, Statcast™'s estimated hitting metric that considers quality of contact and real-life strikeouts) for Martinez, MLB's very best mark out of nearly 300 hitters with at least 500 plate appearances over the last two seasons.
As a hitter, there's not much that separates Martinez from the biggest stars in the game, and an American League team can maximize his value by using him at the designated hitter spot. Martinez's late-bloomer status also means he won't be arbitration-eligible until 2020, making him a cost-effective, controllable talent. The time is right for an AL contender to swoop in and strike a deal.
Who should land Martinez? He'd fit just about anywhere in the Junior Circuit, but here are a few of the most logical destinations that come to mind.
It's no surprise that Tampa Bay has already checked in with St. Louis. The Rays are the frontrunner, considering they need an impactful right-handed bat after designating C.J. Cron for assignment, and perhaps St. Louis would take some of Tampa Bay's extra utility players including Minor League second baseman Kean Wong (the younger brother of Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong). The two clubs already found common ground with the Tommy Pham trade at last July's non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Chicago is entertaining trade offers for Jose Abreu, and his departure would leave a huge hole in the middle of the lineup. Martinez could be a cheap asset to build around in the final stages of the White Sox's rebuild, splitting time between designated hitter and Abreu's old spot at first base.
There's similar motivations for the Yankees to either trade for a bat like Martinez or sign a free agent like Daniel Murphy. Greg Bird's stock is down after a tough 2018, and there's no guarantee Luke Voit can sustain the impressive numbers he posted down the stretch. That leaves an opportunity for Martinez at first base while also sharing some DH at-bats with Giancarlo Stanton.
Marwin Gonzalez's likely departure opens up Houston's DH spot, and the Astros could weather limited playing time for Martinez at a corner outfield spot with Jake Marisnick's future uncertain and the unproven duo of Tony Kemp and Kyle Tucker currently in the mix for the starting left-field job. Martinez's right-handed swing, which currently resides at a pitcher's park in St. Louis, could take aim at the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park.
There's no guarantee that DH Carlos Santana or Jay Bruce will be on Seattle's Opening Day roster. If general manager Jerry Dipoto deals Santana, he could turn around and trade for similar production from Martinez at a fraction of Santana's financial cost. Martinez could still be a productive part of the Mariners' lineup by 2021, when Dipoto sees their competitive window opening again.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.