Free Agent Stock Watch: Russell Martin

Russell Martin‘s current two-year, $17MM deal, which remains the largest free-agent contract in Pirates history, received mixed reviews when it was signed. Now, though, it’s clear the deal was a coup for the Bucs, and Martin’s impending free agency raises fascinating questions about how to balance his unusual skill set and the lack of impact catchers on next offseason’s free agent market against the worrisome aging patterns of backstops in their thirties.

Martin was a key to the Pirates’ breakout 94-win season in 2013. He hit a modest .226/.327/.377, but he still contributed 4.1 fWAR thanks to his exceptional defense, and he may have added a bit of value even beyond that thanks to his well regarded pitch framing. This season, he might be even more helpful despite missing time with a hamstring strain — his .417 OBP so far this season is an amazing 107 points above league average, and his defense again grades very well, with 9 Defensive Runs Saved above average so far.

USATSI_7978360_154513410_lowresMartin’s excellent performance in 2014 couldn’t be better timed. Now that Kurt Suzuki has signed an extension with the Twins, there won’t really be any other starting catchers on the free agent market, unless one counts players like Geovany Soto or A.J. Pierzynski. Teams like the Dodgers, Rockies and possibly Blue Jays or Cubs would all make some degree of sense as potential suitors for Martin, and the Pirates would surely love to have him back at the right price, so the market for him should be robust.

Dollar figure and contract length are always important considerations for free agents, but in Martin’s case they’re even more crucial than usual. Neal Huntington has already implied that the cost-conscious Bucs aren’t likely to be serious bidders, even though it’s a steep drop from Martin to presumptive 2015 starting catcher Tony Sanchez. A team like the Rangers might be unwilling to block a terrific catching prospect in Jorge Alfaro by signing Martin to a lengthy contract, and therefore could simply settle on Robinson Chirinos until Alfaro is ready. The same goes for the Red Sox, who have Christian Vazquez at the big-league level and Blake Swihart on the way.

Then there’s the more general problem of how to value an aging catcher. Martin will be 32 in February, and aging patterns for catchers that age are brutal, to put it mildly. Recent history is full of good starting catchers who struggled to maintain their value into their thirties, like Kenji Johjima, Ramon Hernandez and former Pirate Jason Kendall. Others, like Charles Johnson and Michael Barrett, fell off the table at an even younger age than Martin is now. Brian McCann, who’s signed to a five-year contract and who’s even younger than Martin, might end up providing another cautionary tale. Martin is a unique player with good conditioning habits, and his defense should give him value even if his offense falters, but history isn’t on his side.

On top of that, Martin’s remarkable .290/.417/.391 2014 season likely wouldn’t be sustainable even if he were younger. After five straight years of a BABIP of .287 or lower, his BABIP is .354 this season. Martin’s excellent plate discipline is legitimate, but his batting average is more likely to be something like .240 or .250, rather than .290, going forward.

These warning signs will be perfectly clear to most teams, and it’s likely that whoever signs Martin will be hoping to get good value at the start of the contract, with that value declining sharply as the contract progresses. It’s tough to find precedents for a Martin deal, since few catchers sign long free-agent deals, but he should be able to receive at least three years, and perhaps four, at north of $10MM per season. Barring an injury down the stretch, he’ll surely be in line for more than the three years and $26MM Carlos Ruiz received from the Phillies last year, but far less than the five years and $85MM McCann got.

The Ruiz contract suggests Martin will get a hefty payday, although Jarrod Saltalamacchia‘s recent deal points in the other direction. Saltalamacchia posted 3.6 WAR last season before hitting the market as a 28-year-old and only got $21MM over three years, even though the Red Sox didn’t extend him a qualifying offer. For Martin, a three-year deal in the range of $12MM-13MM per season might make sense, or possibly a four-year contract worth slightly less per season. Martin could also try for a higher average annual value by taking a two-year deal, although, given his age, he probably has incentive to prefer more seasons and more guaranteed money, since he’s not likely to get another big contract after this offseason.

One can see, then, why a return to the Pirates appears so unlikely — the Bucs were unwilling to extend a $14.1MM qualifying offer to A.J. Burnett last season, explaining that their budget made it difficult to build a competitive team while committing so heavily to one player. It’s difficult, then, to see them committing to pay a similar annual salary to a player for three or four years, particularly when getting little from that player at the end of the contract could be disastrous for them. The Burnett situation also raises questions about whether the Pirates will extend Martin a qualifying offer after the season, potentially affecting his market. They will probably have a stronger incentive to do so with Martin than they did with Burnett, given that there’s less of a chance Martin would accept.

Less thrifty teams would likely have fewer concerns than the Pirates would, and might also be more inclined to pursue Martin because of his perceived value even beyond his peripherals — he’s widely regarded as a thoughtful player and leader who’s helpful with pitchers. The most likely outcome (although it’s far from certain at this point) is that Martin winds up with a three-year deal from a bigger-payroll team.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

39 Responses to Free Agent Stock Watch: Russell Martin Leave a Reply

  1. bucsws2014 12 months ago

    The Pirates can afford to pay Martin. Whether they will or not remains to be seen. But they certainly have the payroll flexibiity to do so. It’s not like they’re going to be signing any other major FA this offseason (or any season). They have cost controlled guys all over the place and will continue to have their core OF and pitching around for a few more years.

    After having Ryan Doumit, Rod Barajas, Chris Snyder and Michael McKenry behind the plate for much of his early tenure with the Bucs, certainly Neal should appreciate the value Martin brings. Just keep your mouth zipped, Neal, and pay the man.

    • Nathan Boley 12 months ago

      I don’t think it’s up to Neal whether he wants to pay him, if you get what I’m saying.

      • bucsws2014 12 months ago

        I don’t think that’s an excuse next year. It’s on record Nutting would go to $90 mill this year (when they were after Price and others). There’s no way the Bucs payroll gets near $90 mill next year unless they’re dropping some serious cash on Martin. They’ve got a ton coming off the books and besides some manageable arb raises, there’s no need for a big FA signing, save for Martin (assuming Pedro moves to 1b).

        • Nathan Boley 12 months ago

          My guess is they’ll let Martin walk and try to resign one of Liriano or Volquez. Sanchez will take over catcher, as has been preordained. The infield will stay the same, with Pedro moving to first and JHay taking over third. The rotation will likely be Cole, Morton, one of Volquez/Liriano, Worley, Locke. I don’t see many additions this winter.

          • todd Rainey 12 months ago

            KIngham will probably be the annual june callup so they wont have someone pricey blocking him or Taillon.

  2. Brian Lynch 12 months ago

    I’d sure like to see him back with the Dodgers.

    • vtadave 12 months ago

      Me too as long as he’s cleaned up his partying ways off the field.

    • BlueSkyLA
      BlueSkyLA 12 months ago

      Not so much. We already have an excellent pitch handler in AJ Ellis. Maybe if he was prepared to take a backup role, but we know that isn’t going to happen.

      • vtadave 12 months ago

        AJ is a great guy who handles the staff well, but he can’t hit a lick.

        • BlueSkyLA
          BlueSkyLA 12 months ago

          If you listen to what the pitchers say, AJ handles them more than just well. Martin has gone through some long runs of feeble hitting too, and if you compare their career lines they are more similar than you might expect. This is where a pitching focused team opts for stability over taking a flier on someone who might have another good year or two in him.

          • FromDuke2Joc
            Sean Casey 12 months ago

            The Dodgers are going to address the catcher position during this off-season. They have too much invested in this team to carry 3 catchers hitting under .200 and an OPS+ under 65 leading into October. They may over look Ellis’ season of below average offense if it wasn’t attached to a season with below average defense and CS%. Martin leads the league in base runners thrown out and is considered one of the better pitch framers. They don’t have any catching prospects in the upper minors that will be MLB ready in the next two years. The top catching prospect in the organization is 18 year old Julian Leon in rookie ball. If Ellis doesn’t rebound the Dodgers will be in a tough spot. It might not be too smart to bank on a 33 year old catcher rebounding during his age 34 or 35 seasons. I don’t see the Dodgers being adverse to paying Ellis these next two arb years to game plan and coach the staff from the bench. He could be a very valuable backup catcher.

          • BlueSkyLA
            BlueSkyLA 12 months ago

            People who analyze this way I think aren’t so clear on what makes a catcher valuable to a team. Kershaw considers Ellis to be a vital part of his game. He is an instinctual pitcher who likes to talk about his feel for the ball on any given day rather than pitch selection and location. Ellis is Kershaw’s left brain. He is all about preparation. Beckett’s also gives him huge credit for reviving his career, and when Corriea came over he learned right away that he’d be spending a lot more prep time with his catcher than he did on his other teams. No stat line reveals any of this, but it’s important just the same. Do the Dodgers need more depth at the position? Absolutely. But I think behind Ellis at this point, not in front of him.

  3. Encarnacion's Parrot 12 months ago

    But does he want to sign as a shortstop?

  4. arthur3 12 months ago

    There will be a near riot in Pittsburgh if Russell Martin is allowed to leave. There is not a viable catching option in their minor league system- Tony Sanchez, the heir apparent , is a major disappointment. The fanbase is legitimately baffled by the unwillingness of ownership and management to invest in their team- especially when looking at the offseason and trade deadline inactivity. The small market excuse can only go so far. Figure out a way to sign him, Huntingdon! He is probably the Pirates 2014 MVP.

    • Trav G 12 months ago

      Sanchez hasn’t really even gotten a chance at the ML level. Don’t get me wrong, Martin is one of my favorite Pirates and I’d love to see him resigned, but I’m not sure he is worth 13-14mil a season past next year. Do we remember the Kendall contract? Small market or not, it’s not wise to overpay someone based on past endeavors. Personally, I’d rather spend the money on signing Lirano at this point (the 2013 version).

      • arthur3 12 months ago

        Tony Sanchez’s 2014 AAA batting average is teetering around the .220 level, and he is throwing out potential base stealers at a clearly unacceptable rate of 12% (7 of 58 caught stealing). This would represent a significant downgrade over Russell Martin, not even taking into account the fact of his inability to frame pitches/ handle pitching staff. Oh yeah, Jason Kendall was traded for a ML starting pitcher and reliever (trade was just ok for Pirates, but budget conscious Oakland readily accepted the salary).

  5. connfyoozed . 12 months ago

    There is nothing at all to suggest that Tony Sanchez is or will be anything more than minor-league depth at this point. If the Pirates want to continue to contend for the next couple of years, they almost have to sign Martin. He’s that important.

    • TL 12 months ago

      I think Diaz is now the next in line and is still probably two years away from being the “the man” (currently at AA).

  6. TL 12 months ago

    The Pirates need to be willing to go well beyond their comfort level to sign Martin. Either pony up the cash for Russ or plan on spending more money on the rotation. The Pirates will have far less success with the reclamation projects and bargain bin pickups without Martin around to call games and frame pitches.

  7. todd Rainey 12 months ago

    3/30 with a option would be about right, he is having a career year ba wise and you dont pay for declining years and cheerleaders

  8. Don’t be surprised if in the offseason the Pirates acquire Alex Avila from Detroit.
    James McCann is tearing it up in Toledo, and will likely be ready to take the reins next year.

  9. krinks 12 months ago

    Having been a Pirates fan for decades I know that the very notion of the Pirates as a winning team didn’t begin until they brought Russell Martin on board. Prior to this anyone with a walker could steal a base at will. This led to the pitchers being overly distracted by men on base, knowing that every walk or single might as well have been a triple. A catcher that can handle a staff the way Martin does is worth top dollar.

    • Big Giant Head 12 months ago

      You are absolutely right. Martin has improved that team in so many ways.

  10. Joe W. 12 months ago

    20 mil for two with a vesting option for three. Should enough time to know if Reese or other talent is up to take over. I didn’t like Russell’s contact when he was signed but he was a huge part of the bucs turn around… boy was I wrong. ..

    • Joe W. 12 months ago

      2 seconds after I posted that he his a home run

    • Mark Gus 12 months ago

      I agree with you, whole-heatedly. The Pirates should and HAVE to sign Martin in the offseason. There is no way around it. Tony Sanchez is not an option. He has looked horrible behind the plate. I like your notation: 20 mil/2 years with a vesting option for a third. That sounds perfect for me. I would not mind having Russ the highest paid player on the team. Huntington & Nutting HAVE to get this done.

  11. YARRitsBLAKE 12 months ago

    I can honestly say that the Dodgers desperately need a catcher. Since Martin left here are the numbers:

    Martin (2011-2014): 12.1 WAR
    Dodgers Catchers (2011-2014): 7.5 WAR with 6.3 coming from AJ Ellis

    In my opinion the Dodgers have the money to spend, and might as well fill the weakest part of their field with a familiar face. The Dodger faithful will gladly welcome Martin back! Ellis isn’t exactly making pennies at $3.6 million this season, and Martin is making $8.5 million. Their respective WARs are -0.2 and 3.3 this year. You don’t need to have a PhD to see what is clearly in front of you.

  12. Sam 12 months ago

    Even though I like AJ, I’d like to see Russell back in LA.

  13. Scott 12 months ago

    I’d go 3 years/$36 million. $14/12/10 million per year breakdown. If he doesn’t take it, Pirates might have to let him walk.

    If Tony Sanchez starts living up to his potential, then Martin becomes a nice trade piece, although I don’t see it happening. The Pirates need Martin until Diaz/McGuire can take over.

    • Ron Loreski 12 months ago

      If Sanchez lives up to his potential, he is the one that becomes a trade piece. If the Pirates want to win a World Series, they need Russell Martin.

  14. Lee Foo Young 12 months ago

    I think we will QO him. Odds are pretty good, imho, that some team will still sign him and we can get a comp pick. And, if we don’t $15 mil, albeit it being an overpay, will not ‘kill us’.

    I had no problem with us NOT QO’ing AJ and I don’t think the two are comparable.

    The Pirates could see that AJ was trending down and wasn’t worth the $$$$ (as his stint in Philly has proven). He was barely worth the $8 mil they offered him. Heck, Volquez has been a better value.

    In fact, I think they could QO both Russ and Liriano. I have a feeling that there are clubs out there that will sign both and we then get picks.

  15. Grant Bridenbaugh 12 months ago

    Can’t help thinking if the Pirates are going to give an ‘uncomfortable’ deal, this is where to do it. The guy makes a dozen other guys on the team better, and there isn’t anyone comparable ready in the system or available elsewhere at the moment.

  16. BrynGilkey 12 months ago

    It’s blind speculation what the Pirates can afford to pay any one player. MLB teams don’t have to make public their books and non do.

    I would like to see Martin return. But, he is 31 and catchers don’t get better with age. They get injured more and hit less as they get older. OTOH, I would take the diminishing returns of Martin over the mediocrity of Sanchez or whatever else the Buccos rescued from the dumpster (Barajas I’m talking to you).

    Ideally Martin is signed for 3 years giving Reese McGuire time to prove himself MLB worthy.

  17. James Madorma 12 months ago

    Check out the new TV contract the owner’s are getting mega$$$ and I don’t care if Martin costs 40M/3yrs, they have to sign him. Someone mentioned signing Avila: we have been stealing bases on him like crazy this series. PAY MARTIN THE MONEY!!!

  18. Benjamin Markham 11 months ago

    Will the Pirates miss another chance to QO a player? I get the Pirates would be very iffy about a 3-4 year deal, but they should be willing to keep Martin around one more year at $14-$15 million. They shy away from guaranteeing too much long term money but they keep their window open. I don’t know what else NH would do with that money, but Martin is a part of the Pirates core and if they lose him that is a significant hit considering where they are on the win curve. Right now they are borderline contenders, but losing him makes them too close to a .500 team to be viewed as contenders.

  19. Uatu The Watcher 10 months ago

    NYY letting Martin walk was criminal negligence. Though I think I heard that was ownership allocating those dollars towards ichiro over the baseball ops braintrust who wanted to keep Martin

    • FromDuke2Joc
      Sean Casey 9 months ago

      Every move that doesn’t pan out for the Yanks is blamed on ownership overriding Cashman and co. Part of Cashman’s job is convincing the owners to follow his vision and professional expertise. The yankees have the most overrated front office in baseball as far as I’m concerned. They have a multiple time champ GM, a celebrated stat department, some of the games better scouts, and a front office with execs (Levine, Eppler and Oppenheimer) that seem primed to take over GM jobs. None of these guys did a well enough job of explaining to ownership that they were undervaluing Martin and the yankees saw him play everyday.

  20. I think you beat any offer in AAV but don’t go past 3 years.

  21. GetGardenhire 9 months ago

    White Sox should pickup AJ, so he can show Ty Flowers where his seat is on the bench. 2 seasons ago I watched a player that was about 5’8″ 150 lbs bowl Flowers over and knock ball free at home turned out to be the winning run. Flowers is 6’4″ 270. So Flowers was thrilled with this new awful Homeplate rule. Hope Joe Torre & Leyland switch that rule back ASAP.

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