By: Will Burchfield
Big trades inspire loud reactions, and there was no shortage of clamor within the Tigers fanbase after the team dealt J.D. Martinez to the Diamondbacks on Tuesday.
The voices were many and yet they were one: GM Al Avila got robbed. The more staid critics called the return of three infield prospects underwhelming; the more outspoken called it a steaming pile of trash.
But, to some degree, they all agreed that Avila should have gotten more.
As if it was so obvious there was more to be had.
Before Avila can be fairly judged on his return for Martinez, there needs to be a precedent set in this year’s trade market. Otherwise we’re grading him against nothing. It’s easy to say he got “fleeced” or “robbed” or “taken for a ride,” but in comparison to what?
The owner of an asset doesn’t determine the asset’s value. Those bidding on it do. Unfortunately for the Tigers, there weren’t many teams bidding on Martinez.
“Unlike what you might see reported where you think there are 29 clubs out there knocking the door down, it’s not like that,” said Avila. “The options are somewhat limited and you have to go with the teams that you feel really want the guy and put forth the effort to get him.”
Sure, Avila may have been covering his own back. He has been heavily under siege within the team’s fanbase of late, never more so than Tuesday evening, and probably felt the need to defend an unpopular move.
But he was also telling the truth.
This year’s trade market is tailored to the buyers. The supply far outweighs the demand, particularly in regard to position players, even more so in regard to outfielders.
It is telling that Martinez, widely considered the best position player on the market, had two, maybe three legitimate pursuers. Along with the Diamondbacks, there were the Rockies, Dodgers, Royals, Cardinals and Indians, only the Indians to a serious degree.
The general consensus is that Avila jumped the gun. The trade deadline is still 12 days away and, in theory, he could have used that time to wait for a better offer. But what if that offer had never arrived? And what if, in the meantime, that small group of contenders eyeing Martinez had found an outfield bat elsewhere?
The Tigers’ doomsday scenario wasn’t trading Martinez too soon. It was being unable to trade him at all. Oh, Avila would have found a suitor one way or another, but his leverage was likely as high as it was going to get. A shallow market can dry up quickly.
There was a tendency within Detroit to romanticize Martinez as a player. The Tigers plucked him off the scrap heap in 2014 and watched him grow into a star. He delivered memorable moments and indulged the fans. His story appealed to the heart, and the heart can often deceive the eye.
“For some reason, I don’t know why, the (fans) always loved me,” he said. “They never put me down, they never booed me. If I would strike out three times in a game, I’d be in the outfield and hear them, ‘Hey, you’re alright, J.D! Get ‘em the fourth at-bat.’”
He could do no wrong, even when he did.
Martinez is a heck of a hitter, no doubt about it. His 1.018 OPS ranks ninth in baseball (among players with at least 200 plate appearances) and he has power to to all fields. There are All-Star Games, several of them, in his future.
But in gauging what he’s worth to other teams, it’s important to remember that he does, in fact, have flaws. Namely, he’s a poor defensive outfielder. In Martinez, Avila was selling a shaky glove just as much as a prolific bat.
Avila should absolutely be scrutinized for the trade. But before he can be criticized, before his haul can fairly be deemed a disappointment, there needs to be a comparable case. It needs to be proven that there was more to be had for a hard-hitting outfielder with poor defensive metrics and an expiring contract.
Avila won’t be denied potential vindication. Nor will he be spared possible indictment. There are a number of pending free agents of the Martinez mold who are likely to be dealt before the deadline. When they are, judgment of Avila’s latest work can begin in earnest.
Some names to watch include Jay Bruce, who has 24 home runs and 62 RBI for the Mets; Melky Cabrera, who has 11 home runs and 53 RBI for the White Sox; Howie Kendrick; who’s hitting .349 in 33 games with the Phillies; and Jose Bautista, who has 16 home runs and 42 RBI for the Blue Jays and could be bought out for cheap in the offseason.
(A’s first baseman Yonder Alonso is one to keep an eye on as well — like Martinez, he’s a bat and nothing more.)
If any of the aforementioned players, all of whom are lesser hitters than Martinez, net a more impressive trade return than the three prospects the Tigers received from Arizona…well… Avila can be panned. He can be blamed for selling too low, for jumping the gun, for getting outfoxed.
But until the market crystallizes, how can anyone start to criticize?