Has Russell Martin been the Best Free Agent Signing?

You get the sense with this Pirates team that something is different.

Russell Martin has been a vital part of the Pirates success so far in 2013. (Photo by: David Hague)

Russell Martin has been a vital part of the Pirates success so far in 2013. (Photo by: David Hague)

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
At-bats: 154
Hits: 39
2B: 10
3B: 0
HR: 6
RBI: 14
BB: 15
K: 25
Slash: .253/.335/.435

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:

Josh Hamilton
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
At-bats: 213
Hits: 46
Runs: 25
2B: 7
3B: 2
HR: 8
RBI: 18
BB: 16
K: 61

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.

B.J. Upton
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
At-bats: 167
Hits: 26
Runs: 13
2B: 4
3B: 0
HR: 5
RBI: 10
BB: 16
K: 65

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.

Michael Bourn
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
At-bats: 133
Hits: 40
Runs: 18
2B: 7
3B: 1
HR: 2
RBI: 9
BB: 9
K: 33
SB: 8
CS: 4
Slash: .301/.350/.380

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.


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Tom Bragg

Tom Bragg is a beat writer and analyst for PiratesProspects.com. He is the former sports editor of the (Fairmont) Times West Virginian and has worked at the Charleston Gazette, Charleston Daily Mail and the (Ashland, Ky.) Independent. His freelance work has appeared in newspapers all over West Virginia and he has written for The Associated Press with stories posted to several major media outlets (ESPN.com, SportsIllustrated.com, FoxSports.com). Tom graduated from Marshall University in May 2010 with a degree in Print Journalism. Follow Tom on Twitter: @TomBraggSports

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  • skliesen

    Based on the most important criteria, value to team, clearly Martin has had the biggest impact of any FA signing. He has a distinct advantage being a catcher because he can impact each and every game in such a meaningful way.

    This is really a no-brainer question to me.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

      agree with you and Tom.

  • http://twitter.com/anthonycloskey anthonycloskey

    You’ve left out that Martin didn’t cost them their first round pick.

  • emjayinTN

    Tom: Easily the best because the merry-go-round has stopped – 17 SB’s, 13 CS. He is a true professional and handles himself very well, and is one of the biggest reasons I have for wanting Gerrit Cole in Pittsburgh and starting against the Giants on June 11. With guys like Martin, Burnett, Rodriguez, and Liriano he cannot help but learn valuable lessons of a MLB pitcher. One thing – I think he is making $8.5 mil in 2013 – $2 mil Bonus, $6.5 mil salary. In 2014 it is a straight $8.5 mil. Also love the fact that his W/K Ratio is .60 – anything better than .50 is a positive meaning that this is a guy who will put the ball in play.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

    It’s not just Martin’s production, but the delta between his production and the “next best option” – which at catcher was slim pickin’s. The drop-off on both offense and defense is pretty significant. As far as addressing needs are concerned, hands down the best acquisition of the offseason for any team.

  • https://profiles.google.com/116366873579930999690 Thom Kay

    Mike Napoli and Anibal Sanchez belong on the list. Napoli is hitting really well on a 1yr/5m contract. Sanchez is paid well, but he’s pitching like a superstar.

    • Tom Bragg

      I didn’t include Sanchez because he didn’t switch teams. Miami traded him to Detroit last July before he resigned with the Tigers in December. He and Napoli have both been great though.

  • tempman89

    The Russell Martin signing was exactly what I always felt the pirates needed to do. Instead of spending 5 million on overbay, and a few million spread around, I always wanted that 1 bigger FA who could come in and contribute.
    Now I recognize that it was hard to get free agents to consider Pittsburgh, but as we have seen with Martin, a lil more money and we get that player.

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