You get the sense with this Pirates team that something is different.
Sure, Pittsburgh has been rattling off wins at a near-record pace and appears poised to battle with St. Louis and Cincinnati all summer for positioning in the National League Central with the prospect of spot in the playoffs not seeming like a pipe dream. Those are all not the norm for the Pirates, but what has been the catalyst for the transformation from a good team that could not close the deal in 2011 or 2012 to the team that has been one of the best in baseball through the first two months of 2013?
There are many reasons, and one that jumps out to me is the chemistry this team has with each other. The attitude and vibe in the clubhouse always seems to be positive and that comes from having positive people in key positions.
Enter Russell Martin.
Martin, perhaps more than any of the new faces around PNC Park this season, has been a positive presence not only in the clubhouse but also on the field. Martin’s arrival was a departure from the norm for Pittsburgh as the team outbid the Yankees for his services as he became the most expensive free agent signing of the Neal Huntington era. Some did not like the addition of Martin when he signed with Pittsburgh, and while we’re certainly not above having an opinion that proves to be wrong the question remains: How much better do you feel about the Pirates with Martin as the starting catcher than you did with any of the players that manned the position for Pittsburgh in recent seasons?
After a slow start with his bat, all Martin has done is go on to be one of, if not the most, important free agents signings from last year.
Take a look at his offensive numbers:
Games played: 43
And then consider how important Martin’s role on defense is for the Pirates. Michael McKenry has proven to be a valuable asset as a backup catcher but has not been consistent when playing for extending periods of time and also appears to be a great big green light behind the plate to runners on base. Martin’s presence behind the plate — be it deterring potential base-stealers, framing pitchers or just handling the pitching staff in general — combined with his steady numbers at the plate and his presence in the clubhouse has made him into one of the most important pieces of this Pirates team.
That has not been the case for some of the “big names” that signed as free agents last offseason, but while some of the players that received huge contracts have under performed (to put it nicely) there are others such as Martin that have played important roles on successful teams and lived up to their contracts and reputations.
Let’s take a look at what some of the other free agents in new places have done so far this season:
Hamilton was the most sought after prize during free agency after last season, and with the numbers he put up for Texas it was easy to see why. The Angels snapped up Hamilton for $133 million over five years. This season Hamilton will make $17 million and so far the production has not matched the pay.
Games played: 56
Hamilton is not hitting for much power and is not driving in a ton of runs. His slash line is ..216/.277/.380 with a .657 OPS and he has struck out in more than a quarter of his at-bats.
The Braves brought Upton in to be a key piece in their pursuit to keep pace with all the talent Washington has been stocking up with. Not only was he going to play in the Atlanta outfield with his brother Justin and Jason Heyward but he was going to be relied on to be a big part of the lineup. If not for Upton it would be easy to call Hamilton the biggest dissapointment of the 2013 season so far, but the former No. 2 overall pick has been awful.
Games played: 48
His slash line is laughable (.156/.237/.269) and even more so when you consider Upton will make more than $13 million this season. Guys who make that much money and signed the richest contract in Braves franchise history are not supposed to strikeout in more than a third of their at-bats and there has been some talk in Atlanta about sending Upton to Triple-A to try and fix whatever it is that has plagued him this season.
Bourn left Atlanta for Cleveland in the offseason and appears to be an important part of the Indians’ surprising start. He has never been a player that is going to be a big power threat but it is his speed that made Bourn one of the more sought after free agents. So far in 2013 Bourn has used that speed well both in the Cleveland outfield and on the bases.
Games played: 33
Bourn signed a four-year, $48 million contract with Cleveland and will makes $7 million of that this season (which compares to the $7.5 million Martin will make this season).
Other free agents have had decent seasons so far but how do they stack up to Martin ? Has Russell Martin been the best free agent signing in baseball to this point in the season? Let’s discuss it in the comments section.