The Arizona Diamondbacks made the move they had to make. The move a contender makes.
Teams can hope or they can act, and the D-backs properly opted for the latter in acquiring outfielder J.D. Martinez from the Detroit Tigers in a deal announced an hour before Tuesday’s game in Cincinnati.
Martinez gives the Diamondbacks another weapon with which to attack left-handed pitchers, their weakest link.
Whether that acquisition is all that is required to regain their mojo remains to be seen, but it is a step in the right direction as the National League wild-card race suddenly tightens with the recent runs by the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves. General manager Mike Hazen will continue to explore potential pitching options as the July 31 deadline approaches.
The D-backs’ offensive weakness all season has been a relative inability to hit left-handed starters, against whom they are 10-12. They are 43-27 against righties. The disparity hit home hard during a three-game sweep by the Dodgers in Los Angeles the first week of July, when they had one run and seven hits in 21 innings against three Dodgers lefties.
The injury absences of regulars A.J. Pollock and Yasmany Tomas and platoon player Nick Ahmed exacerbated the problem, but only Pollock has returned.
A playoff spot waits for no man.
Right-handed-hitting Martinez has hammered lefties in a small sample size this season with 18 hits (and six homers) in 45 plate appearances against them. He has been relatively split-neutral the rest of his career, but the only thing that matters here is the 2017 stretch run.
In Tomas, the D-backs already have a player who is quite similar to Martinez, a corner outfielder who plays because he hits. The two had almost identical seasons in 2016 — Tomas had 31 homers, 83 RBIs and an .820 OPS. Martinez had 22 homers, 58 RBIs and a .908 OPS in 20 fewer games. Each was rated a below average defender.
Now, in a stretch in which the D-backs have lost eight of nine, they could not afford to gamble on Tomas, who has been sidelined since early June with a groin injury. He suffered a setback during his first rehabilitation assignment and might not be healthy enough to rejoin the team until early August. Ahmed, one of the few D-backs who has better splits against lefties, is not expected back until late August.
The trade deadline, thus, became a real barrier.
Had the D-backs decided to wait on Tomas, they might have recovered the player who slashed.364/.423/.690 with 11 homers against lefties in 2016, almost as dominant as Martinez has been against them this season. Tomas’ splits against lefties are not as good this season.
Had the D-backs failed to act, their ability to make a later deal would have been severely comprised, because players must clear waivers on any trade made after July 31. Detroit seemed certain to trade Martinez, who will be a free agent this winter; there was no guarantee he would have been available had the D-backs paused. (It is the same reason that the D-backs likely will add a starting pitcher before July 31.)
Rather than hope for the best, the D-backs prepared for the worst, always the right play.
Tomas might have helped. Martinez almost certainly will.
Martinez had a career year in 2015, when he slashed .282/.344/.535 with 33 doubles, 28 homers and 102 RBIs, made his one All-Star team and won a Silver Slugger award.
The D-backs seem likely to let Martinez test the market this winter, inasmuch as Tomas is under contract for three more years. (He belongs in the American League, but that is another story.)
The cost to acquire Martinez — infielders Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara and Jose King — was made from a position of strength. The D-backs are strong at the major league level with middle infielders Chris Owings, Brandon Drury, Ahmed and Ketel Marte, and Ildemaro Vargas and Jack Reinheimer are at Triple-A Reno.
The D-backs will absorb Martinez’s remaining salary, about $6.8 million, a small price for a major upgrade and a move that bumps the D-backs’ payroll to about $100 million this year.
Martinez was not acquired to platoon. He will play every day and hit in the middle of the lineup — it would be no surprise to see him hitting fifth behind Paul Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb against right-handers, and fourth behind Goldschmidt against lefties, when versatile Owings could move down (or up) into another spot.
Daniel Descalso and Gregor Blanco have played well in filling in during the absences of Pollock and Tomas, but now they will be able to return to the roles for which they were acquired — versatile, situational specialists with clubhouse presence. Blanco could see time as a late-inning defensive replacement.
Even if Martinez is only a 2½-month rental, that is plenty long enough to make a difference.
By Jack Magruder