Going Deep: Jose Martinez has earned playing time, but will he get it?
St. Louis Cardinals outfielder/first baseman Jose Martinez has been a useful piece for fantasy baseball owners both of the past two seasons, posting a .306/.371/.478 triple-slash in 897 plate appearances.
He hasn’t been a player on many owners’ draft boards at the start of the season, but Martinez has managed to become a steady offensive producer and well worth rostering in most formats (particularly those that don’t score errors) in the past two years.
He has been such a productive hitter that the Cardinals this past week signed “El Cafecito” to a two-year contract, surrendering one year of team control, reportedly to keep him from taking more money to go play in Japan.
Why would a player who got almost 600 plate appearances and had a well above-average offensive year in 2018 be considering playing overseas? For the same reason that there is some risk in Martinez as a fantasy player in 2019. Some of that may come from his numbers, which we’ll get into later, but a majority of it is unrelated to anything he has done.
Cardinals brass has made it abundantly clear that Dexter Fowler is the team’s starting right fielder and that he’ll get every chance to keep the job after a career-worst and injury-plagued 2018. Given the addition of first baseman Paul Goldschmidt — and Martinez’s defensive shortcomings at the position — it’s also no surprise that he appears to be only an outfielder from now on. Early in spring training, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Martinez literally returned his first baseman’s mitt to the team.
“I don’t even know what a first baseman’s glove is,” he told Cardinals writer Derrick Goold.
Martinez retains his first-base eligibility for fantasy purposes, but the issue is the lack of a path to playing time with one less spot to get it available. With Fowler entrenched in right field and the Cardinals’ other spots deeded to a hopefully healthy Marcell Ozuna and young defensive specialist Harrison Bader, some sort of intervention will be required for Martinez to see consistent plate appearances.
Martinez should be the Cardinals’ fourth outfielder ahead of slugging prospect Tyler O’Neill, but it will still take an injury or significant performance issues for him to see regular playing time. It’s not terribly difficult to envision a situation in which Fowler fails to bounce back or he or Ozuna get hurt, but it’s still difficult to invest draft capital in a player you know isn’t guaranteed to get opportunities throughout the year.
The best course of action may be to hope he slips by undrafted and pay attention to the waiver wire and outfield situation in St. Louis as the season goes on or, if you have a deep roster in the late rounds, pick him knowing he’s a stash-and-hold type.
As for Martinez’s performance, his power took a slight dip in 2018 from his breakout 2017 campaign, but most of his other outputs remained consistent — and there may even be underlying reasons for optimism. The first question about the sustainability of Martinez’s effectiveness as a hitter is undoubtedly his .353 BABIP in the major leagues.
That number is significantly higher than the big-league average but may not be an outlier for Martinez. In only two of his 10 seasons in Minor League Baseball did Martinez register a BABIP lower than .300. Looking at his batted-ball profile, it’s somewhat easy to explain why. Martinez has consistently sprayed the ball around the field throughout his professional career. Combined across each level of the minor and major leagues, he has gone opposite field at least 29% of the time in every season since 2008.
Couple that with Martinez’s ability to limit soft contact, and it’s easy to see why such a high percentage of the balls he puts in play fall for hits. In both of his full seasons in MLB, Martinez has posted at least 82% in either medium- or hard-contact rats.
Beyond that, Baseball Savant’s Statcast data suggests Martinez has deserved even better results than he has gotten the past two seasons. His xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average) in 2017 and 2018 combined was .393, significantly better than the already solid .364 wOBA he actually posted in those seasons.
In deeper mixed leagues, Martinez may well be worth at least a late draft pick, but in those with shallower benches or 10-team leagues, it may be more difficult to stomach the wait for his production.
Martinez’s ability seems legitimate, and one has to think the chances of Fowler and Ozuna both getting 600 plate appearances are relatively low. The possibility of a trade to an American League team, where he could see more playing time thanks to the availability of the designated hitter, is also realistic, but there remains unquestionable risk in drafting Martinez.
(Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire)