First Pitch: What Would Russell Martin Be Worth in Free Agency?

Earlier today I wrote about the throwing problems from Tony Sanchez, and how those issues could keep Sanchez from being a starter in the majors. The Pirates will have a choice this off-season between trying to bring back Russell Martin, or giving the everyday job to Sanchez. Originally it seemed like a lock that Sanchez would take the job next year. But the more he struggles with his throwing, the more he could see that future starting role slip away.

As for Martin, the team has some money to spend after this season, and much more than the $17 M they were aiming to spend last off-season. They will be losing Martin, Wandy Rodriguez, Edinson Volquez, Jason Grilli, and Clint Barmes. By the end of the year, that will be almost $35 M off the books. There will be some salary increases to off-set that, but even after those salary increases, the Pirates will have about $20 M to spend to just get to the level they’re at this year. So they could afford to bring him back.

The question is what kind of salary he could command. It seems that teams are becoming more aware of the benefits of pitch framing and handling a pitching staff. But do teams value that enough to pay for it?

Last year, Brian McCann received a five-year, $85 M deal. McCann was coming off a year with a 2.7 WAR, which was also his three-year average from 2011-2013. Martin had a 4.1 WAR last year, but had a 2.2 average the previous three years.

If McCann was being paid just based off his recent WAR, then he was being paid about $6.3 M per win. If he was being paid based off his production from before 2011, then the cost would be closer to $5 M per win. Let’s use the $6.3 M figure for now.

It’s hard to project what Martin could receive, since his value will partly be based on this season. He had an 0.6 WAR after one month, which means he would be about a 3.6 WAR player over a full season, or a three win player if you take time away for potential injuries and missed time. I don’t think Martin’s value will be based on his 2.2 average from 2010-2012. I think his value could be seen as higher, especially if he comes back and continues performing well. At the least, he could have a similar value as McCann, which would put him in line for a huge deal.

But what about pitch framing? McCann has had some excellent pitch framing and blocking skills, leading to about 3.2 wins above replacement average per year just from those skills alone, according to the Baseball Prospectus research. Likewise, Martin has been worth about 2.7 wins per year for those skills. Once again, McCann and Martin have similar values, although Martin is worth about half a win less than McCann.

I still think free agent contracts are lagging behind the appreciation for defensive skills. McCann and Martin are very similar players from a value perspective, but they’re totally different players from a skills perspective. Martin is one of the best defensive catchers in the league, getting all of his value from that defense. McCann is good defensively, but not as good as Martin. He makes up for that with his offense, plus he’s good at framing and blocking. But free agency is still at a point where offense gets paid, and defense is undervalued. I don’t think that will change, even with the studies and recognition that catcher defense is getting.

Martin should be worth the same contract that McCann got, or maybe a bit less since McCann has a bit of an edge over Martin. It’s doubtful Martin will get that amount. I don’t think he’ll be limited to his $8.5 M per year though. Jarrod Saltalamacchia got $7 M per year, and Carlos Ruiz got $8.5 M per year after a down year. So Martin should be getting ten figures.

Martin originally was reportedly seeking a four-year, $40 M deal the last time he was a free agent. The Pirates gave him two years and $17 M, which was seen as an aggressive offer, outbidding the Yankees. This time around, I think he could get that $40 M, and he could get it over a three-year span instead. And even if Martin does make $13 M per year, he would represent a big value. He is worth around the same as McCann, and might be worth more than that if you put the proper value on his framing and blocking skills.

The Pirates could afford Martin, and it might not be a bad investment. Sanchez hasn’t been looking like a sure thing, and Martin was a key player for the Pirates last year. Even as he gets north of 30, his defensive skills should still be around, and that’s where his value comes from. He could be a good bridge until Reese McGuire arrives, which would be 2017 at the earliest. And if Tony Sanchez improves his game during that time, then the Pirates wouldn’t be in the worst situation with two strong catchers on the roster.

Links and Notes

**Is Tony Sanchez Throwing Away His Chance at Being a Starter?

**Prospect Watch: Harold Ramirez Returning Strong From Hamstring Injury

**Minor League Schedule: Strong Start to Season For Buddy Borden

**Baseball America Unveils New Top 100 Draft Prospects List

**Prospect Highlights: More Extra Base Hits From Gregory Polanco

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Roberrto21

    It would be a smart move to keep Russ!!’

  • ElGaupo77

    This will be a very hard call. Harder than Burnett.

  • bucsws2014

    If the Pirates haven’t realized the value of a competent catcher after years of Doumit and Barajas, then we’re never going to win anything.

    As long as Martin doesn’t completely physically break down this year, Neal has to seriously consider re-signing Russ. Or paying top dollar for someone similar.

    • impliedi

      “Or paying top dollar for someone similar.”

      Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like there will be much in the catcher market. Perhaps if Martin gets away, the Pirates take a chance on a Geovany Soto (assuming he’s healthy, which may be a big assumption right now.)

      I know that Soto is not Martin’s equal in either offense or defense, but if Martin is going, Soto would be a guy that could start most days for you (unlike a Chris Stewart or other short-term backup the Pirates might sign), and would allow Sanchez to have time to properly push his way into the lineup during the next year or two.

    • stickyweb

      I don’t think the options are Martin or incompetence of the Doumit/Barajas level. I think a lot of Sanchez’s problems are trying to do too much and overthrowing the ball. He’s trying to prove himself instead of relaxing and playinghis game. But he would need to start catching right handed and throwing left handed to reach the Doumit/Barajas level.. I don;t think he’ll do that.

      • BlueBomber72

        This is not a new issue for Sanchez. He has dealt with this in the minors. Too big of a risk to give him the starting job on a team you think should compete.

        • John

          He was drafted on his defensive ability so it’s not like he could never throw. So there is always a chance he can regain that and always a chance he won’t. That is why he needs to get back to Indy and play everyday.

    • Y2JGQ2

      Well I wouldn’t think we’d want Russ for 3 more years…..a 34 year old catcher who has struggled with injury and wearing down at the end of the year….isn’t a good long term bet. I’d give him 2/25 that’d be about it, and i think he can do better elsewhere. We have a boatload of catching talent which will be here in probably 3 years or so. I would be okay with keeping Sanchez knoing it might be a slight downgrade, he still has room to improve and isn’t a liability aside from his throwing issues which hopefully will get fixed. They can only be mental

  • impliedi

    While I’d love to see them keep Martin, you forgot to mention another player that is coming off of the books for next year: Francisco Liriano. So, with 3/5 of the rotation gone next year, and the major setback to Taillon, I think the Pirates entire offseason budget this winter will be for pitching, pitching, and more pitching.

    In fact, if I were the Pirates, I’d be trying to extend Liriano right now (which they may already be trying to do). That would be my top priority. Perhaps a 2/$20 contract extension. If you get Liriano extended, then I would certainly make Martin my next in-house target.

    • stickyweb

      If they could get Liriano for 2/$20 mil right now, NH would run to Milwaukee to get it signed. Frankie knows he’s in line for at least 4/$50 mil in the offseason as long as he stays healthy, and since he’ll be 31 when he starts fielding offers, I really doubt he’ll just sign for 2 years and roll the dice on doind this again at age 33.

      • John

        You think they could put into his contract that he is also responsible for playing defense and at least try on offense. He was disgraceful last night not covering first base twice and he looked absolutely agitated after he singled and Walker kept fouling off pitches with a full count and 2 outs and he had to run towards second base a couple times.

        • bucsws2014

          I don’t think I saw the second non-cover, but the first was Ike’s fault. That was Neil’s ball, Ike should’ve been headed to the bag instead of going halfway to 2nd. I’ll give Frankie a pass on that one.

          • John

            Sorry but it doesn’t exactly work that way, pitcher has to head to first on any ball hit to the right side and he would have seen Ike going for the ball and now it is his responsibility to cover first. As an infielder you can’t assume its any ones ball but yours if you can get to it. As for the second one it was the same as the first in the fact Liriano assumed Davis would make the play himself. So when Davis bobbled that ball that if Liriano would have kept going to first they would have made an out. Interesting sideline to the second non-hustle play. Runner eventually comes around to score and tie the game. They pinch hit for Frankie and end up using three relief pitchers they may not had to use since he was on 87 pitches after six and dealing pretty good. I’m not saying that had anything to do with Melancon’s problems today but you don’t want the bullpen wasted when you got a guy coming off the dl whose previous starts have been a disaster.

      • impliedi

        You may be right, but isn’t it funny that no one was willing to top the Pirates offer of 2/$12.75 for Liriano 2 years ago when he was a still-in-his-prime 29 years old (and some called it an overpay) and now you’re talking about someone giving him 4/$50 at age 31?? These are crazy days! I personally don’t think he’s getting that much (or even getting 4 years), but, on the other hand, I wouldn’t be completely surprised either, if he did!

  • BlueBomber72

    Your points around defense being undervalued are spot on. The Pirates need to get value for their dollars and Martin could be undervalued. Besides, they have to sign a FA catcher. They have no choice so they might as well get a good one.

  • Joe Sweetnich

    How does age and historical decline enter into the conversation for a catcher? Russ certainly has taken a beating. As everyone knows, as we age past performance is not a guarantee of future value. I don’t think Huntington will pull that trigger. Just my opinion.

    • piraddict

      Great point.

    • bucsws2014

      This is true. But realistically the Bucs may only need Martin to catch 100 games or so with Sanchez as the backup. Martin can also spell Pedro at 3b (and I expect Pedro to be traded in 2015, although that may be in the offseason). If he learns 1b, he can take over RH platoon from Gaby, who may not be re-signed. Given Josh is due for arb, it’s entirely possible Neal jettisons our super-utility guy – and Russ is willing to play anywhere. Just a thought.

  • TonyPenaforHOF

    I think the Pirates have some real leverage since they can offer him a qualifying offer at the end of the year. That would be about $15 million for one year. Any team trying to sign him would have to beat that AND give up their first round draft pick. That may depress his value to potential bidders, giving the Pirates a real chance to sign him for a reasonable price.

    • piraddict

      If the Pirates wouldn’t QO Burnett because they didn’t want to put that much of their budget into one aging player, why should we expect they’d do it with Martin, and almost double his salary to boot? The qualifying offer is really a tool that only large market teams can afford to use.

      • stickyweb

        Because they can be fairly certain Martin will decline it and get a better offer elsewhere. That wasn’t the case with AJ, who stated he’d play for the Bucs or nobody, so he’d likely accept the QO.

  • jaygray007

    we still have a few months to analyze Sanchez, but it isn’t looking especially good for him.

    not a lot else going on in the FA market this offseason. To me, Russ seems like a fine use of a few-year contract until the baby catchers are ready.

  • https://profiles.google.com/109244063945873319632 Matthew McCarty

    Make a QO, thats what you do

  • Monkshot

    That’s a excellent point. The problem in my opinion will be the years. I’m guessing Martin will want a 4 year deal this time around, and I could see the Red Sox getting involved since AJ Pierzynski only signed a 1 year deal. Like I said before, I can’t believe other teams haven’t tried running on Sanchez every chance they get.

    • piraddict

      Let’s see how Sanchez does this afternoon, the Brew Crew likes to run.

  • Travis Persinger

    The bigger scope that should have been added to this article is who will be signing a starting catcher next year. There has to be a market for him to get the money he wants. This isn’t a SP where teams continue to add, add, add every year at the position. And right away thats where you have the alarms going off. If the Red Sox or Dodgers want him…they can afford him next yr. AJ was on a one yr deal and Ellis is nothing but a bottom half catcher. There’s probably going to be 7-10 giving him serious looks Maybe 10 is a bit high but not impossible.

  • leadoff

    It would be nice to keep Martin, but probably not going to happen, I don’t think Pirate management thinks they can keep him. As far as Sanchez is concerned it appears that the media and the rest of the bloggers in the blogger stratosphere do not understand the Pirate system. The Pirate system is to breed players, not buy players. Sanchez has a maturation process that he will have to go through, as Huntington has tried to say, but seems to fall on deaf ears, other great catchers have gone through the same problems he is having. With any young kid you have to have patience, Sanchez is a catcher with all the tools necessary to be a fine catcher in the majors for a long time and we should not get hung up on every mistake he makes and completely overlook other players mistakes. I have seen every team in baseball this year and Sanchez could be a first string catcher on a lot of them, the worst thing for him is to have every mistake he makes blown up the way it is now. People only remember Sanchez throwing a baseball down the right field line when his feet are pointed one way and the ball is thrown in another direction or the ball goes into center field on a steal, but do not remember Sanchez hanging over a railing catching a foul ball and falling into the dugout on his back. Rushing to judgement is a bad thing with a young player, especially a player with a lot of talent. I think right now I would be more worried about his hitting than anything else.

  • piraddict

    Don’t want to quibble on the numbers too much, but I get:

    Wandy (net of Astros contribution): $7.5
    Martin: $8.5
    Grilli: $4.0
    Barmes: $2.0
    Volquez: $5.0

    Total: $27 MM

    Liriano’s also gone at $6.0. So there’s a total of $33 MM gone, but you have to replace 3 SP. In the open market that’s probably $35 + MM right there if you go with non reclamation projects. The only way the Pirates could afford Martin is to make a big commitment to Cumpton, Pimental et al. . Which might be a good idea. But committing big money to an aging catcher has it’s risks as well.

    I would rather see them target money for a better SS ( unless Mercer has a miraculous turn around) or put big money down on a #1 SP. Our present 2015 staff profiles as having a lot of #3s, but no stopper. I’d like to see them spend big money on a Number #1 SP than on Martin. The upgrade in wins from a true #1 to the best of what we have got (Cole) will outweigh the decease in WAR from Martin to Sanchez.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/ Tim Williams

      I was also counting Liriano at $6 M, plus he’s got $2 M in bonuses that he will most likely reach. Plus there’s $1 M for Martin’s signing bonus. That’s where the $35 M figure came from.

      I don’t think they’ll have to fill all three rotation spots through free agency.

  • jaygray007

    Just for poops and giggles… here are next year’s FA catchers. martin is the top option….

    John Buck (34)

    Ryan Doumit (34)

    Nick Hundley (31) – $5MM club option

    Gerald Laird (35)

    Russell Martin (32)

    Jeff Mathis (32) – $1.5MM club option

    Wil Nieves (36)

    Miguel Olivo (36)

    A.J. Pierzynski (38)

    David Ross (38)

    Geovany Soto (32)

    Kurt Suzuki (31)

    If Sanchez continues his lackluster play…. It’ll be really tough to defend a non QO.

    If Sanchez takes some steps forward, then it’ll be a fun debate. If Sanchez can be… say… a 2 WAR option, they can let Russ walk and have some real fun somewhere else in the FA market. JJ Hardy or Jed Lowrie (depending on hanson’s arm…. or if they trade for Didi!)… Chase Headley or Pablo Sandoval…. some interesting pitchers…

    harder to fill another hole if they pay for Martin. it’s all on Sanchez.

  • John

    Well he will be 32 next season and if he is getting hamstring injuries now this isn’t a good sign going forward. Hamstrings can nag even young guys for a long time. Would love to have him back but I wouldn’t offer him the moon or anything more than 2 years. and I’m quite sure guys at his age want more than 2 year contracts. I’m afraid with as hard as he plays and his position he may end up on the dl again.

  • mysonisnamedafterRoberto

    Tim’s article does a great job defining the value of Martin in normal market conditions. The question is whether the 2015 catcher’s market is a normal market. I think the other factors that need to examine are the demand on the positions and the potential of those markets for that demand and the supply of the free agency market. Below is the list of free agency next year for catchers.

    John Buck (34)

    Ryan Doumit (34)

    Nick Hundley (31) – $5MM club option

    Gerald Laird (35)

    Russell Martin (32)

    Jeff Mathis (32) – $1.5MM club option

    Wil Nieves (36)

    Miguel Olivo (36)

    A.J. Pierzynski (38)

    David Ross (38)

    Geovany Soto (32)

    Kurt Suzuki (31)

    The list isn’t that impressive, as jaygray007 pointed out, and from that list, the only starters are Martin, Pierzynski, Soto and Suzki. Pierzynski and Suzki are the only health one with Soto on the 60 day DL. So the supply this upcoming year is very thin. When you look at the opening in the upcoming season they will be: Pirates, Rangers, Red Sox and Twins.

    The concerns here are the two large market teams in the Rangers and Red Sox. Both have young prospects, ranked in the top
    100 of baseball at the position that are expected in the majors over the next couple of years. The chance that either would tie up the progression of their youth would be surprising. Both would not probably sign Martin for more than 2 years, unless there are some concerns with those prospects.

    When you look at team that are struggling with WAR productivity from that position the bottom 5 of
    WAR are: Nationals, Cubs, Rangers, Dodgers and Rockies. The one that stands out here is the Dodgers, for various reasons.
    First, their assumed starter A.J. Ellis is just coming off the DL. Questions surrounded him at the beginning of the year if his best seasons where behind him. Secondly, of their top four catching that have had time with the major league team, only Ellis is on the books through next year. And lastly, with their deep pockets and the high expectations in a major market, they could be an easily withstanding carrying Ellis at 3- 5 million and Martin’s potential contract. They are a contender for Martin. Plus as we all know that was where he came up.

    I think when you look at it from the value of Martin: they may be a few deep pockets that might skew his value higher and he is by far the top of the list of catcher free agents. This could create a bidding war with him. The next option is Pierzynski and only he know if he will be back next year.

    A couple of things that working against him is the low amount of teams bidding for a starting catcher and that two of the potential larger bidders have high ranking prospects at the same position that are estimated to back on the major league teams shortly.

    I feel that if they Pirates are not going to sign him and go with Tony, than they may want to consider a trade, to a contender. Right now and this could change by the time the trade deadline comes around, of the bottom 5 teams in WAR for the catcher’s positions: I would only rule out the Cubs right now. Also you have to concern where the Pirates are and any season ending injuries to teams they are in the running for the playoff.

  • Matt Beam

    Russ and Liriano should both get QO’s… worst case, you end up paying $14M each for one more yr which isn’t horrible given Taillon being delayed a year and Sanchez isn’t a slamdunk

    • Travis Persinger

      We all know they won’t risk putting over 28 mil into 2 players.

  • Arik Florimonte

    I don’t think you can address whether would be a good investment (or not) at this projected cost without looking at the WAR you get for those FA dollars elsewhere. What would be the WAR delta between Martin and Sanchez? Can you make it up by spending on a SP?