Jose Martinez is a Pragmatic Acquisition for the Cubs

We’re just a few hours away from the trade deadline, and while the Cubs have yet to acquire a lefty-stopping reliever via trade, yesterday’s trade should prove valuable down the stretch.

Acquiring Jose Martinez from Tampa Bay for two players to be named later (or cash) may have been a bit surprising in actuality, but not in theory. The Cubs, to the best of my (or Google’s) knowledge, were never connected to Martinez before the trade’s announcement. For the Rays, unloading a talented bat they acquired themselves this past off-season, shipping off touted lefty Matthew Liberatore in the process, seems a bit quizzical.

In theory, though, the trade lines up for both squads. We know the Cubs are desperate for a right-handed stick that can produce against lefties, and while Martinez hasn’t necessarily been great this year against lefties (he’s posted a pedestrian .229/.289/.429 triple slash with a 95 wRC+ in 38 plate appearances) his career numbers bear considerably more weight. A .319/.392/.554 triple slash, with a 153 wRC+ against lefties is what the Cubs are betting on, and at age 31, that’s a reasonable bet.

For the Rays, they were able to extract (unknown) prospects while unclogging their outfield. Tampa has significant depth at all three outfield positions, and unloading a veteran bat to make way for younger players — while adding team controlled prospects — is, well, so Tampa Bay. It may irk Rays fans that they traded Martinez for nothing but a couple of PTBNL’s, as there’s no way the Cubs are shipping out prospects anywhere near Liberatore’s pedigree. Martinez, however, wasn’t the highlight of that trade: Randy Arozarena was, and he’ll be with Tampa for the foreseeable future.

There are a few things at play for the Cubs, all of which deserve a nod to the front office. Most prominently, the Cubs found a capable right-handed bench bat (arguably the team’s second biggest need) without breaking the bank, and presumably without sacrificing much by way of prospect capital. They had the flexibility on the roster. Josh Phegley was DFA’d, a player that received minimal playing time with little means of impact. To that end it’s easy to see David Ross finding at-bats for Martinez without sacrificing reps for Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, and Kyle Schwarber. It does mean that Albert Almora‘s role will be diminished further, and that Steven Souza‘s role has been usurped. Neither player has produced, however, and a bat that could help rejuvenate an inconsistent offense was a high priority for a first place team with championship hopes.

Still, it’s understandable fans feel angst about this trade. After all, the Cubs made a strikingly similar move last year, acquiring Nicholas Castellanos on the cheap, and he flourished at Wrigley before inking a multi-year deal with Cincy — and has done nothing but rake since. While keeping Castellanos would’ve been preferable, context remains an important consideration.

Martinez’s adjusted salary for 2020 is ~$320 thousand, the remaining salary owed easy enough for a luxury-tax minded team to absorb. Added to that, Martinez will remain under team control for both the 2021 and 2022 seasons, presumably at arbitration rates the Cubs will find palatable. While his defense will never be his calling card, he can play both corner outfield spots, and provides added depth (along with Victor Caratini) behind Anthony Rizzo at first. Overall, expect him to serve as the featured DH against lefties, with pinch-hit responsibilities and limited starts on the field.

Castellanos signed a four year, $64 million dollar contract this past off-season, and as reasonable of a deal as that sounds for a guy that’s hitting .262/.350/.590, good for a 144 wRC+ (including 10 home runs), we all knew his tenure with the Cubs would be brief. It’s a shame, given how much he took to the Wrigley faithful, the spark he provided, and the joy fans had cheering for him, but the reality of this team’s ownership-imposed financial constraints never would have allowed such a signing.

There are, of course, some concerns regarding Martinez. While small sample sizes are not to be trusted, Jose is walking less while striking out at an alarming clip against lefties in 2020. In his career, Jose has walked 10.7 percent of the time versus lefties (league average roughly 9 percent), striking out just 18.8 percent of the time (21 percent). In 2020, Martinez has walked just 7.9 percent of the time against lefties while striking out a whopping 31.6 percent of the time.

Yes, these are just 38 plate appearances, and as with Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, the hope is that we see positive regression from the newly acquired slugger as the calendar turns to September. The Cubs after all, traded for a bat they expect to help against their offensive woes against lefties.

As a team, the Northsiders’ right-handed hitters are slashing .234/.329/.379 with a wRC+ of 93 against lefties. Should Martinez show up to Chicago hitting as he has throughout his career, he’ll be a huge upgrade. Should 2020’s numbers persist he’ll be a disappointment, but his current numbers are in line with what the Cubs have established this year, and his cheap price tag makes the risk worth taking.

The bottom line is that Jose Martinez provides the Cubs with a proven right-handed bat, albeit one with less-than-stellar numbers in 2020. We knew the front office was hamstrung, with only the ability to perform under-the-radar trades for affordable players. Martinez cost little, both in terms of money and (presumably) prospect cost, and his team control provides the Cubs with the option to retain his services, or as Dan Szymborski pointed out at Fangraphs, simply cut ties before 2021 with rosters reduced back to 26.

For now, Cubs fans should consider this move as pragmatic and necessary. While he won’t be a lightning rod the likes of Castellanos, Martinez should help the offense improve where it needs to the most.

All stats courtesy of Fangraphs unless otherwise noted.

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