BOSTON -- The end came swiftly for David Ortiz. One minute he exhorted the crowd late in a do-or-die Game 3 of the 2016 American League Division Series, and the next he waved a tearful farewell from the mound.
When Ortiz removed his jersey for the final time, the impact crater threatened to swallow the entire offense. Without Ortiz to anchor them, the 2017 Red Sox found themselves adrift. Mookie Betts downgraded from MVP runner-up to borderline All-Star. Xander Bogaerts regressed. Andrew Benintendi regressed. Jackie Bradley Jr. regressed.
When the season ended, manager John Farrell lost his job, in part because he couldn't get the most out of his young players. But the reality is the lineup lacked the star around which everyone else orbited.
Enter J.D. Martinez.
Linked to the Red Sox for the entire 2018 offseason, the slugger didn't sign until spring training. He wasted no time solidifying the middle of the lineup, posting numbers typically associated with players named Ruth, Williams, and Mantle. His .330-43-130 breakthrough could've won the Triple Crown in a dozen different seasons, and Red Sox hitters credited him with taking the pressure off everyone else.
The result? One hundred and eight wins and another championship.
"J.D. is something different," Bogaerts said. "Hitting behind him most of the time, throughout my career, whenever he's locked in on that ball, that ball sounds pretty loud. You've got to be ready to hit when you're on deck because he might swing at the first pitch. That's one thing I learned with him, especially when he's going good. He's hacking on the first pitch and that ball comes off real loud."
A year later, Martinez's importance cannot be overstated, particularly in light of Ortiz's absence. Big Papi represented a generational talent while leading the Red Sox to three titles. Replacing him seemed like a task measured in years, if not decades. And yet it took the Red Sox only one season to find Martinez.
Now, they're in danger of losing him, which is a story that deserves more attention. With this past offseason's focus on impending free agents Betts, Bogaerts, and ace Chris Sale, Martinez flew under the radar. The Red Sox managed to ink Bogaerts and Sale to extensions, and they'd love to do the same with Betts, who seems content to reach free agency and then load a fleet of Brinks trucks.
But what about Martinez? He can opt out of his contract this fall, and even in baseball's absurdly depressed market, interest should be robust in a slugger who may very well be on his way to a third consecutive 40-homer season.
"It's amazing what he does on a nightly basis," noted manager Alex Cora.
Conversations about the most important members of the Red Sox generally start with Betts and end with Sale, but don't let Martinez's lack of a regular defensive position fool you. He is the most important player in the lineup, and the Red Sox can ill afford to lose him.
In the 6-5 win over the Rockies on Wednesday night, Martinez blasted his fourth home run in three games while going 2-for-4 with a walk. After a slow start from a power perspective, he has socked five home runs in the past nine days.
He's hitting .321 with nine homers, 28 RBI, and a .940 OPS. His numbers are slightly down from where he was on this date a year ago -- .344-11-34-1.024 -- but he's heating up.
"The ball's going over the fence now. That's always better," Martinez said. "That's ideal. It was frustrating early on in the season, but it's going now. I'm hoping to ride it as long as I can."
Truth be told, Martinez put up quality at-bats in the early going, too, but with buckets of loud outs to show for it.
"We were playing Toronto, I hit a couple of balls that day," Martinez said with a sigh. "And then Baltimore, I hit a couple of balls, and I was just like, 'This sucks.' "
Now, he's rolling and providing the same kind of lineup security as Ortiz in his prime.
"I really don't look at myself like that," Martinez said. "I try to go out there every day and be an example to everyone in here and just try to be an example on the field -- take really, really tough at-bats, not give away at-bats, not give away outs, make the pitchers work for every out, every pitch. That's something I take pride in."
So, about that five-year, $110 million contract. Martinez will earn $23.75 million this year and next, which is a bargain for a 40-homer slugger who also hits for average. He can opt out after either season, or play for $19.35 million each in 2021 and 2022.
He makes no secret of his desire to stay in Boston, and while his camp remains open to negotiating an extension during the season, the ball is in the court of the Red Sox, but president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski prefers to hold contract talks in the offseason.
Martinez is clearly worth more than he's earning now, and at 31, he could have five or more productive seasons in him at DH. Ortiz excelled into his 40s, after all, and look at Minnesota's Nelson Cruz, still punishing fastballs at 38, with five All-Star berths since 2013.
Martinez isn't sweating it. The last time he hit free agency, he had posted .303-45-104 numbers following a monstrous second half with the 2017 Diamondbacks. Just as he doesn't feel pressure to be Ortiz, he's not obsessing over his contract, either.
"It was like that the year I was a free agent," he said. "All I can do is control my preparation and what I do every day. I can't control the results. I wish I could. I wish I could come in and say, 'Hey, I'm getting two hits today,' and it just happens. All I can do is control my preparation, find ways to hit the ball hard, and the rest is up to the big guy."
With that, Martinez pointed to the ceiling in recognition of the Almighty. Back down here on earth, there's one big man as far as teammates are concerned, and he wears No. 28. The Red Sox would be wise to retain him.
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