Signing J.D. Martinez was a move Mets had to make to be taken seriously in 2024

It was a move the Mets had to make if they were to be taken seriously as postseason contenders in 2024.

At age 36, J.D. Martinez shouldn’t be viewed as any kind of savior, but he certainly could be a difference-maker for a lineup that was desperate for a proven run-producer.

Kudos, then, to David Stearns, not just for signing Martinez on Thursday night, but doing it on his terms. That meant waiting and waiting, and waiting some more, despite pleas from fans and media, myself included, to make a deal.

Same goes for Steve Cohen. I’ve said all along, I’m in agreement with his big-picture plan to sell his aging pitchers last summer and build something sustainable with an improving farm system, but that didn’t mean it was OK to let a luxury-tax hit stand in the way of adding a thumper to hit behind Pete Alonso.

He is Steve Cohen, after all.

Turns out he -- and Stearns -- simply had a price point in mind. As such, they got Martinez at a relative bargain, one year and $12 million, which is actually less overall because the deal includes deferred money that softens the luxury tax cost.

It could have backfired on them, of course. Martinez deserved a bigger deal, based on his excellent 2023 season in LA with the Dodgers, in which he hit 33 home runs and racked up 103 RBI in only 113 games.

But the market wasn’t there that he expected, with the Dodgers signing Shohei Ohtani, the Arizona Diamondbacks opting for Joc Pederson, and some other teams preferring not to get locked in at the DH spot with one guy.

And so either Stearns had a great read on the situation or he really was prepared to go with the unproven Mark Vientos as the Mets’ primary DH, as he had been indicating for months.

Either way, the patience paid off and now it feels like the Mets have a shot to make some noise in 2024. Not that they suddenly loom as a juggernaut. They’ll still need best-case scenarios from several key players, especially in the starting rotation, to be an 85- or 86-win team, but at least now they have a much better chance of being productive offensively.

Who knows, maybe with regular at-bats in the DH spot, Vientos’ power could have paid dividends over the long season. But it felt like way too much of a gamble, based on the swing-and-miss in his at-bats last season and this spring.

As it is, the Mets are taking a chance on Brett Baty at third base, after his disappointing rookie season, and the idea of counting on both Baty and Vientos was asking too much.

For that matter, as promising a rookie season as Francisco Alvarez had, with 25 home runs, his .174 second-half batting average is a reminder that he still has to prove he can make adjustments to the holes pitchers eventually found in his swing.

In that regard, Martinez gives the Mets a smart, dangerous hitter to bat behind Alonso in either the No. 4 or 5 spot.

"They really had nobody who fit that spot," an NL scout told me Thursday night. "Sometimes having protection for a certain hitter can be overstated, but I believe Alonso will definitely get better pitches to hit, especially in a big spot, with someone like Martinez hitting behind him.

"Pitchers knows the guy has been one of the best run-producers in the game for a long time. There’s a knack to driving in runs, don’t let the analytics fool you on that. Some guys become tougher outs in RBI situations, and I’ve always thought Martinez is one of those guys. He’s a great hitter but he also has a great idea of what he’s doing up there."

The numbers back up the scout’s observation. In fact, Martinez has been among the best clutch hitters in baseball throughout his career, judging by his numbers with runners in scoring position.

Consider that for his career, Martinez with RISP has hit .298 with a .375 on-base percentage, a .550 slugging percentage, and a .925 OPS.

Even more impressive, with two outs and RISP, he has a similar career slash line: .292/.382/.554/.935.

Then there are his spectacular 2023 RISP numbers: .325/.375/.650/1.025.

And again, even better with two outs: .367/.433/.783/1.216.

Yes, Martinez is practically the definition of a dependable run-producer. Since 2018, here are his RBI totals in non-COVID seasons: 130, 105, 99, 62, and 103.

Whatever happened in Boston with the Red Sox in 2022, when his numbers were down, Martinez proved he wasn’t finished with his big bounce-back last season in LA. It wasn’t just the 33 home runs and 103 RBI, despite missing a month with a groin strain, that stood out either.

Indeed, Martinez had dazzling underlying numbers that spoke to how consistently he hit the ball hard. His hard-hit rate and average exit velocity both ranked in the 98th percentile among all major leaguers last season, per MLB Statcast.

The one notable concern revolves around how much he swung and missed in 2023. That is, Martinez struck out 149 times in 479 plate appearances, a 31.1 percent rate that was by far the highest of his career. In addition, his walk rate of 7.1 percent was his lowest since 2014.

However, several scouts/team executives I talked to during the offseason -- when researching a story about Martinez -- believed the strikeouts were a trade-off for the higher power numbers.

"The swing-and-miss is a fair concern for a guy at his age," one AL team exec said in December. "But the numbers tell you he got really aggressive in trying to drive the ball and it paid off because of all the hard contact he made. He had a higher fly-ball rate too so he was clearly trying to lift the ball and he did it successfully."

With all of that in mind, Martinez appears to be a perfect fit in Queens. Whether they were smart or maybe a little lucky in getting him at a bargain this late is irrelevant now. He’s a Met, and just in time.