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MLB Trade Rumors: J.D. Martinez looks very valuable as teams avoid big contracts

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Plenty of big bats remain, but only one requires little commitment beyond a high quality prospect.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Detroit Tigers Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

So far, there has been little direct news about the Detroit Tigers at this week’s Winter Meetings. Yet the trends in other deals may play a major role in determining whether the Tigers can get the type of return they’re hoping for from J.D. Martinez. In the early going there is a marked reluctance to sign established veterans to big contracts. That reluctance makes the Tigers right-fielder a very valuable commodity.

One of the key signposts to the market for right-handed power is former Blue Jays’ first baseman, Edwin Encarnacion. With teams like the Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and several others in the hunt to add a big bat, Encarnacion and his representatives made a decision they’re likely regretting right now. The veteran passed on a four-year deal reportedly valued at $80 million dollars to stay in Toronto.

Encarnacion made that decision over two weeks ago. At the time, it was thought there would be numerous suitors for him. Instead, many teams thought to be in play have instead moved on to pick up offensive help on budget-friendly, short-term deals. The Yankees signed former Cardinals’ stalwart, Matt Holiday, to a one-year deal. The Astros picked up veteran right-fielder Carlos Beltran on a one-year contract for $16 million. And on Monday, Encarnacion’s former club, the Toronto Blue Jays announced the signing of Steve Pearce to go along with the previous acquisition of Kendrys Morales as their designated hitter.

That signing probably cuts Encarnacion off from any fallback plan. While the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians have a similar need and are reportedly still pursuing him, thus far there’s been a more obvious desire to pass on Encarnacion than to overpay for him. More than that, it raises the specter of an extreme reluctance by teams to reach for an older player on a major contract in general.

As a result, J.D. Martinez seems like a very attractive fallback option for any of these teams. In addition, both the Giants and the Phillies have recently been linked to interest in the Tigers’ right-fielder. Perhaps the Washington Nationals are another possibility. Rather than committing a lot of money long-term, these clubs may find it in their interest to trade prospects and save money to keep up with the arms race.

Certainly there are still several big right-handed bats available on the market. Jose Bautista, Encarnacion, Mike Napoli, and Mark Trumbo are all still available. But every one of them is flawed. Bautista and Encarnacion are both over 35 years old, and are still holding out for big multi-year contracts. Napoli could be had much more cheaply, but hasn’t really had consistent success in recent years. Trumbo is the type of all-or-nothing power bat that can be a bit of a curse to a lineup if the bombs aren’t well-timed. Meanwhile, for the cost of a high quality outfield prospect, J.D. Martinez could be acquired for just one year and just less than $13 million.

Even in a year marred by a freak elbow injury, Martinez outproduced every hitter still available in free agency with a 142 wRC+. Heading into his age-30 season, Martinez has continued to trim his strikeouts and up his walk rate every year since his breakout 2014 campaign. While his defense and baserunning took a somewhat inexplicable nosedive in 2016, he’s clearly the premier bat being floated in either trade rumors, or available on the free agent market.

What does all this mean? It means that the Tigers have an extremely valuable commodity in Martinez that should be leveraged accordingly. Teams have a unique opportunity to get one of the elite bats in the game into their lineup, without any long-term commitment. Presumably such a move also gets them to the front of the line in terms of signing Martinez to a multi-year deal, either as an extension, or when he becomes a free agent next offseason.

With little high quality offensive help still available without meeting the demands of the Bautista’s and Encarnacion’s of the world, the Tigers should stand their ground where J.D. Martinez is concerned. If teams want to risk big contracts to older veterans, that’s their business. The Tigers business has to involve a willingness to play chicken, even if it results in Martinez remaining a Tiger. So far, all reports indicate that Tigers GM, Al Avila, has asked for the moon in trade discussions for his stars. All signs indicate that he should continue to do so.