JD Martinez situation highlights Red Sox’ muddied future at designated hitter

Tomase: On JD Martinez and the muddied future of the DH in Boston originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

JD Martinez arrived at a pivotal moment in Red Sox history. David Ortiz’s retirement and two quick playoff exits had left the Red Sox searching for a big bat to anchor the lineup. They found one when Martinez agreed to a five-year, $110 million contract at the start of spring training in 2018.

All he did thereafter was pretty decently reproduce Ortiz himself, finishing fourth in the MVP voting during his Red Sox debut season, making four All-Star teams, and winning a World Series. Even as Mookie Betts won an MVP award in 2018, he credited Martinez for taking the pressure off him in the lineup.

Martinez could be considered the greatest free agent signing in franchise history, depending on your opinion of Manny Ramirez’s off-field antics. But now that his contract is finally up for good, the Red Sox appear ready to take the designated hitter position in a new direction.

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Both chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and manager Alex Cora hinted that the club would like to make the spot more athletic next year, following a game-wide trend away from one-dimensional thumpers. If that happens, they will put an end to one of the biggest positional advantages they have owned since Ortiz arrived in 2003.

“I really think it should be about what works for the club you put together,” Bloom said. “You talk about those two guys with David and JD, they are two of the best who have done it over the course of my career and when you have one of those guys, it’s outstanding. There are also benefits to the other approach. It really gets down to the personnel and who you are talking about.”

For nearly five years, Martinez represented the perfect fit. Although his final season in a Red Sox uniform fizzled with just 16 home runs and weeks-long stretches when he barely threatened the warning track, overall, he provided exactly what Dave Dombrowski envisioned.

“You blink an eye and five years come and go,” Martinez said last week. “A lot of great memories here. Boston didn’t disappoint. Five years ago when I came here, I knew that this was an amazing organization and it surpassed my expectations. It’s been first class since I’ve been here, the fans are unbelievable.

“The media, for as much as they give you guys a hard time here, you guys aren’t that bad. It’s been fun. Great memories. A lot of these guys have never been on a team that has had so much talent, but no egos. It’s honestly been a blessing.”

While there’s always a chance the Red Sox offer Martinez a qualifying offer to guarantee draft-pick compensation should he leave in free agency, there’s also the risk that he simply accepts a one-year offer in the $18-19 million range, and the team has more pressing needs to spend that kind of money on than DH.

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“There’s always a pathway,” Martinez said. “That’s a Chaim question. Famous line, you know. That’s a Chaim question. You have to go ask him. There’s always a path. Right now, I’m a free agent. We’ll see where life takes me.”

The changes for the Red Sox would be considerable. This season, only nine players spent at least 81 games at DH, which was used in both leagues, and that total included two-way star Shohei Ohtani of the Angels, as well as MVP outfielder Bryce Harper, who moved to DH to accommodate an elbow injury. Ohtani is the only one who topped 22 homers.

Compare that to a decade ago, when seven AL teams featured full-time DHs and four of them topped 22 homers, led by Adam Dunn and Edwin Encarnacion with over 40 apiece.

Now the trend is towards more versatility, with multiple players sharing the spot to serve as a day off their feet in the field.

“One of the things we keep talking about and where the game is going is more athletic,” Cora said. “Defense is important. But where the game is going with the new rules, we have to take advantage of certain situations. I do believe at certain times we were stuck offensively this year, not only because of we didn’t hit the ball out of the ballpark, but running the bases and taking advantage of certain situations wasn’t there.

“We have been talking about this for a month or a month and a half. Hopefully we get a more dynamic, athletic club next year where we can not only rely on the long ball and doubles, but we can take advantage of the game. “

That would seem to rule out Martinez’s return, in which case, he has no complaints about his time here.

“It’s a business,” he said. “I get it. I’m the first one to understand that. That’s why I take the criticism well. I understand it. Whatever happens, happens in the future.”