The Pirates have reached a deal with free agent catcher Russell Martin, pending a physical. The deal is for $17 million over two years.
Martin, 29, was the Yankees’ catcher in 2011 and 2012 after five years with the Dodgers. He’s a three-time All-Star and has a reputation as a good defensive catcher, but has seen his offensive numbers decline over the last few seasons. He hit just .211 in 2012, although a career-high 21 homers and a good walk-rate made him a fairly average hitter (92 OPS+). He was one of the best catchers on the free agent market this year, and with the Yankees (and Rangers) involved, I didn’t think the Bucs would land him even if they tried. Well, they did try and as they must do to convince any free agent to come to Pittsburgh, they gave him a very good offer that he wasn’t able to refuse.
When the rumors about Martin and the Pirates started coming up a couple days ago, I said that I’d much rather see the Pirates go with Michael McKenry as their primary catcher and try and bring in a solid starting pitcher (which will cost a heck of a lot). I still feel that way, although I can certainly get behind Martin a little bit after acknowledging that the Bucs overpaid. They’d have to over pay for any free agent. There was talk earlier in the week that Martin was seeking 4 years/$40 million, and that the Bucs were offering 3 years/$25 million. The actual terms (2 years for $17 million) are a lot more reasonable. I’ll break my thoughts on him into pros and cons…
Martin is an upgrade over Rod Barajas. (Duh.) While McKenry had a much better slash line than Martin in 2012, I don’t think anyone was banking on him being very productive in a starting role. Martin is experienced with a solid track record, but he’s also just 29 (he’ll turn 30 in February). He’s durable and reliable; he caught 128 and 125 games in his two years with the Yankees, so we won’t be looking at a situation where McKenry’s starting 2-3 times a week. While it’s tough to get a solid handle on a catcher’s defensive ability, Martin has a pretty good reputation. His career CS rate is 30%, although that was down to 24% last year. The Pirates gunned down 8% of runners last year. Martin won’t completely rectify this situation by himself–pitchers are a big part of it too–but it’s notable that he threw out 24% of runners when catching for A.J. Burnett with the Yanks in 2011. This year with Burnett on the mound, that rate was 5%.
Martin’s batting average is low, but he uses a good walk rate to get on base at a decent clip. In 2012 he walked a higher rate (10.9%) than any Pirate position player did. He also brings some good power to the table (21 bombs last year) and posted a career high .192 ISO in 2012. That comes with a fairly large grain of salt, as Yankee Stadium is quite hitter-friendly, but this chart makes me feel a little better about that.
Martin’s primary numbers at the plate (other than HR’s) have been on a steady decline for years, bottoming out at .211 in 2012. Like I said, his OBP and power still give him some value as a hitter. Still, the overall trend is a concern, and while he had a career low BABIP in 2012, he also saw a spike in his strikeout rate (19.6%). His defense is supposedly good, but Pirates pitchers will have to get the ball to the plate quicker for him to throw people out.
Martin is clearly an upgrade for the Pirates, and unless he becomes the next victim of the Pirate Free Agent Curse, he should be a useful player. While $8.5M/yr might be a little more than he’s worth, it’s still fairly reasonable. I just think that it wasn’t the best use of resources. I’m worried about the Bucs’ pitching depth and wanted them to go after a starting pitcher near the top of the market…and with this Martin signing on the books, I don’t see much of a chance of that happening now.
The Martin signing also clearly shows that the Pirates aren’t ready to give Tony Sanchez the reigns at catcher any time soon. I had a hunch (and slight hope) they’d find some backup-type in the offseason, start McKenry, and bring up Sanchez midway through the year to split time or possibly take over the job. Sanchez hasn’t hit much in the minors, though, so the Pirates are setting him aside for two years here. That’s pretty disappointing for a first round draft pick that’s already reached Triple-A.
Check out Sanchez’s tweet after the Martin news came out:
What? You guys thought it was going to be handed to me on a silver platter? Gotta earn it. Haven’t so far.
— Tony Sanchez (@Tony26Montana) November 30, 2012
I can’t get behind the Martin signing too much, but a lot of that depends on what the rest of the offseason looks like. If the Pirates continue to spend and upgrade (and that starts tomorrow by tendering Jeff Karstens), then I approve. If this is their “big move” (and while it may not seem like a big move, it’s the biggest FA contract in team history…passing Clint Barmes **WELP** ) of the winter, then I won’t be pleased.
Here’s a nice highlight video of Martin’s 2012 season:
PHOTO: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports