JD Martinez, Justyn-Henry Malloy, and the search for more offense

Bless You Boys

Sure, it’s hard to ignore the fact that former Tigers slugger and fan favorite J.D. Martinez remains unsigned as the calendar turns to March. At the beginning of the year, we discussed the idea, but it never seemed likely. Two months have passed and Martinez remains unsigned. A reunion seems at least slightly more plausible, but it would sure be a notable reversal of course from the Tigers after the way they’ve discussed roster building this offseason. But, since Detroit media can’t stop bringing it up, let’s try this one more time from the angle of the Tigers’ internal options.

Scott Harris and AJ Hinch have each pointedly mentioned the value of finally having flexibility in the designated hitter spot this season. They may want to be a little careful with Riley Greene’s repaired UCL for a while and not play him everyday in left field early on. They’re going to want their other two corner outfielders, Kerry Carpenter and Mark Canha, in the lineup most nights. They may even want Colt Keith in the DH slot occasionally with a lefty starting so they can get Andy Ibañez in at second base, thereby improving the infield defense without taking Keith’s bat out of the lineup.

Adding a pure designated hitter isn’t impossible, but adding one as a free agent is particularly tricky. It would limit the Tigers’ bench quite a bit to have a part-time player who can only hit, and if that player can’t be optioned, it limits their flexibility even more. If someone like Martinez came in and struggled early on, suddenly there’s a really tough decision staring the team in the face.

The same is true should one of the Tigers best hitting prospects get on a roll with the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens. Other than Jace Jung, who could simply take over at third base, the others don’t fit into a roster with someone like J.D. Martinez, or another bat first free agent still available like Brandon Belt, in the mix.

In terms of pure offense, while Martinez is coming off a resurgent 33 home run season with the LA Dodgers, he is 36 years old, strikes out a lot more than he once did and had two pretty rough years prior to his 2023 resurgence. Maybe he’s the designated hitter in a third of the games, and you can pinch hit him in leverage situations, a move that AJ Hinch likes to have a good bat on hand for, but it’s just a really tough fit for a roster that still has a lot of question marks. Martinez looks primed for at least a solid year at the plate, but looming over the whole idea is the possibility that Martinez just falls off a cliff this late in his career.

So, if the Tigers decide to offer Martinez a deal, and if Martinez is willing to come back to Detroit in a fairly limited role, which is far from certain, well okay then. The money on a one-year deal will be inconsequential. But the Tigers have good reason to believe they’re better off keeping the designated hitter spot free. And if they do need some part-time help in the lineup, the Tigers farm system does have potential answers.

Justyn-Henry Malloy has a pretty good case

The leading potential answer is 24-year-old Justyn-Henry Malloy. The outfielder is a very good hitting prospect with a strong full season at the Triple-A level under his belt. Most projection systems will tell you Malloy and Martinez should produce a similar amount of offense in 2024. If the Tigers are actually going to start the year with a part-time DH on the roster — which already seems unlikely — going with the one who needs to see the major leagues this year makes sense. Even better, he can be called up if he’s hot, and optioned down if he’s not, maintaining the flexibility to give RIley Greene and others days in the designated hitter spot.

Malloy is in an interesting situation developmentally because he pretty well conquered the Triple-A level in 2023. He hit 23 home runs in 135 games with a .417 on base percentage for the Toledo Mud Hens. There are some things to work on in terms of his approach, but there’s no question that Malloy is already a good fastball hitter with above average power and a strikingly good eye for the zone. The skills are there offensively, and the Tigers shouldn’t stall him very long before advancing him to the major league level.

He’s moved to playing corner outfield full-time this season, and while he’s on the 40-man roster now, there’s no rush if the Tigers want him to work on his defense and get hot with the bat in Toledo before he debuts. But if the Tigers aren’t using him in the big leagues pretty quickly, something has gone awry.

The joke with Malloy last season, his first in the Tigers organization after coming over from Atlanta in the Joe Jimeñez trade, was that he was more accurate than the automated balls and strikes system going through its first paces at the Triple-A level. The robot umps typically saw eye to eye with him. Malloy’s 110 walks led all the minor leagues and he was 11th best in on-base average across both Triple-A leagues. When he challenged a call with a live ump, he was usually correct. As we know, Scott Harris loves a player that controls the strike zone, and it’s an elusive skill to find at Malloy’s level.

However, that discipline may have led to some complacency.

In our scouting report on him back in January, one of the few standout weaknesses Malloy showed in 2023 was some swing and miss on breaking balls down. He doesn’t chase out of the zone much overall, but more experienced Triple-A pitchers who could land good north-south sliders and power curves at the bottom of the zone had a clear path to getting whiffs and weak contact off his bat.

Malloy and the Tigers believe that part of the issue was that he took too many drivable pitches early in counts. Patience is a virtue, but Malloy won’t have the automated system to trust on borderline pitches this season, and you don’t get what you’re looking for as often at the major league level either. When he fell behind last season, his numbers were atrocious. So part of his mantra this spring is to be more aggressive overall and not get overly caught up in waiting for the perfect pitch which never comes.

Here is a first pitch heater he belted to right-center field back on Sunday.

So, Malloy is a pretty good fastball hitter, solid against offspeed, and his splits were very even last season. He has plenty of raw power and drives the ball to all fields, but both his swing and approach are more oriented to lining the ball up the middle than trying to pull most pitches out of the park. He’ll mash his share of hanging breaking balls and he’s fully capable of drilling fastballs for opposite field home runs as well. The short porch in right field at Comerica Park actually suits him well even as a right-handed hitter. He’s not the power threat that Colt Keith is, but he’s otherwise a quality hitting prospect projected to hit for at least average power.

There are certainly things he needs to improve on, but Malloy is a smart hitter and has always drawn good grades for his makeup and coachability. The jump to the majors has been tough even on many hitters that went on to be great, but when you look at Malloy’s strengths and weaknesses, he’s just not going to be tested the way he needs to be at the Triple-A level any longer. He has the skills to be a pretty good major league hitter and needs to face big league pitching to finish growing into his talent.

If the Tigers aren’t going to use him much this season, and decide to sign J.D. Martinez instead, you have to think they’d be better off trading him now. The front office either believes in the bat or they don’t at this point, and I’d guess that they do.

Malloy was playable but definitely below average at third base, and it’s an open question whether he can develop into a decent corner outfielder. He played about half his games in 2023 in the outfield, mostly in left. He also took a lot of innings in left field with the Braves in 2022, so he’s not new to playing the corner outfield. He can get better out there but just doesn’t have the physical tools to be an average or better outfielder. So racking up a nice on base percentage isn’t going to be enough to earn Malloy and everyday role in the outfield. He’s got to give them average or better power numbers as well to be more than a part-time DH and sometime outfielder. Even in a role like that he’s arguably pretty close already to what Martinez would offer. It’s about time to give him a look.

There are no certainties

If you really want Martinez, your immediate response is that Malloy hasn’t done anything yet, and might never make it as a big league hitter. That’s certainly true, but it’s also very possible that Martinez’s 2023 season was his last hurrah as a serious force at the plate. To be a useful hitter with a high strikeout rate and as one of the slowest, most base-clogging runners in the game, he’s got to continue to hit a high volume of home runs. He managed it last year, basically putting up a 44 home run pace for 113 games and 479 plate appearances, but I wouldn’t expect that again.

Here are both Martinez and Malloy’s ZiPS projections for 2024.

Martinez/Malloy 2024 ZiPS projections

Player PA wRC+ K% BB% HR fWAR
Player PA wRC+ K% BB% HR fWAR
J.D. Martinez 494 106 28.5 8.3 22 0.7
Justyn-Henry Malloy 581 100 26.7 12.9 16 0.9

It’s also worth noting that the Tigers have some other options beyond Malloy.

They signed first baseman Keston Hiura to a minor league deal this offseason. The former Brewers top prospect started strong in the major leagues, but has bounced back and forth between the major and minor leagues in recent years. Even so, he again projects to be a modestly above average hitter with ZiPS estimating a 104 wRC+ in about 400 plate appearances this season. Hiura may well have an opt-out if the Tigers don’t call him up by May or June, so if they need a DH, calling up Hiura is also a possibility. No doubt he’ll be thrashing Triple-A pitching for a Toledo Mud Hens roster that looks pretty stacked. Outfielder Justice Bigbie is another possibility who might continue his assault on minor league pitching at the Triple-A level. Should that happen, the Tigers would like to see him as well, despite not really having room for another outfielder at the moment.

So, maybe the Tigers will shock us here, but I highly doubt it. J.D. Martinez on a one-year deal can’t really hurt them, but it commits a roster spot to a player who has very limited utility and can’t be optioned, at a time when the Tigers really want to use that DH spot to help keep their regulars healthy with days off, and to be able to maximize their options defensively. They seem really unlikely to alter that opinion, and if they do, it makes as much sense to just use internal options in the same role as Martinez would fill.

We all know the Tigers are likely to need more offensive firepower before they become a regular contender. Colt Keith should be a key piece of that, but they’ll need more. There just wasn’t the right free agent available this offseason. The Tigers have no business getting into 3-4 year deals with players in their 30’s unless they are elite players. Even adding a part-time veteran like Martinez in a very limited role for a year doesn’t really fit with what they’re trying to do long-term.

I wouldn’t hate it if they bit on Martinez, but this seem like a year to play the young players early on and then season the roster to taste at the trade deadline as applicable. If they’re even willing to carry a part-time DH and pinch-hitting specialist, they have much more flexible options than J.D. Martinez. We’ll see if the Tigers stick to the plan or think Martinez offers enough to deviate a bit and try to seize an opportunity. Don’t hold your breath.

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