A few weeks ago I wrote that the biggest priority for the Pittsburgh Pirates should be re-signing Russell Martin at the end of the year. On Sunday, Neal Huntington talked about a few of the catchers in the system, and also commented on the possible market for Martin this off-season. The comment was made when discussing Tony Sanchez and his improvements towards being a starter. That raised concerns that the Pirates were setting up for the loss of Martin already.
“Tony has had some challenges as most guys do when they feel that they’ve graduated from that level,” Huntington said on Sanchez. “Maybe the focus hasn’t been quite as sharp. But, as of late he’s played better and gotten back to being the guy that we need him to be and the guy that gave us comfort. If the market goes where we think the market is going to go on Russ Martin and we’ve got to become creative then we’ve got an internal option in Tony Sanchez. But, we’ll see, we’re still working through that. We need to see some things from Tony here in this last month to continue to grow and develop.”
There’s a lot to dissect in the second half of that quote. The key part is focusing on the potential market for Martin. I don’t know where the Pirates think the market could go for Martin. Charlie Wilmoth wrote an article at MLBTR looking at Martin’s free agent stock, and estimated that the price could be $12-13 M per year. I think that sounds about right, although if teams valued Martin’s defense and pitch framing properly, combined with the horrible catching market, the price could be closer to Brian McCann’s deal last year. I think the $12-13 M figure is a good figure, since I’m not sure that teams will place the proper value on catcher defense on the free agent market.
Last off-season the Pirates refused to make a qualifying offer to A.J. Burnett, with Huntington making a comment about how they couldn’t afford to spend that big of a percentage of payroll on one player. I never took that statement at face value. Burnett was in a situation where he was saying he would play for the Pirates or retire. Obviously that didn’t happen, and the Pirates ending up with no compensation for Burnett leaving is another topic. But I don’t think the Pirates refusing to give Burnett $14.1 M means they would also refuse to give anyone that amount. If we’re going to believe that, then we’d have to believe that Andrew McCutchen will only be in Pittsburgh for one more year, since he will start making $13-14 M a year in 2016.
But we know that isn’t the case with McCutchen. That’s an extreme example where you’re comparing an MVP who is in his prime to an aging pitcher coming off two good seasons. So where does Martin fall on this scale?
I didn’t have a problem with the Pirates not making Burnett a qualifying offer. I felt that their ability to judge pitchers and find good reclamation projects gave them some leeway. Basically, after finding Burnett and Francisco Liriano the previous two years, they had earned the right to build a rotation how they wanted to build it, rather than having to play it safe and go with moves that made the fans comfortable. Things were rocky at first, but the rotation they have now is looking great, with two reclamation projects — Edinson Volquez and Vance Worley — both pitching well.
The Pirates have shown a good tendency to find good value on the starting pitching market. They haven’t necessarily shown those same tendencies when it comes to developing catchers in the majors. Now it’s true that they saw something in Martin that other teams didn’t see. That led to one of the most valuable signings of the last two years when they signed him for $17 M over two years. At the time, that wasn’t even seen as a good deal, from myself included. Since that point, we’ve seen the value of Martin’s defense alone.
As far as prospects, Huntington praised Tony Sanchez, although the continued throwing issues from the 2009 first round pick raise questions about whether he can actually work as a starter. Chris Stewart hasn’t lived up to any of his defensive reputation this year, which means the Pirates would be better off going with Sanchez as the backup next year. This would give him another opportunity to prove himself in the majors, without the Pirates having to fully commit to someone who hasn’t looked ready defensively when he’s been up.
A step lower than Sanchez is Elias Diaz, who is having a nice breakout season. However, Diaz won’t be ready for the start of the 2015 season, and his offensive sample size is still too small to say that he’ll be more than just a backup.
The Pirates can find value when it comes to starting pitching. They can pass on outfielders like Marlon Byrd because they want to wait on Gregory Polanco. They can go with a platoon at first base to try and get a combined sleeper at the position. But they can’t afford to pass on Martin just because they don’t want to pay market rate.
If there is anyone they should pay market rate for, it’s Martin. His value has been far too important to this team. He’s been one of the best defensive catchers in the league, and a huge boost to the rotation. I don’t think you can count on his offense continuing at the 2014 levels going forward, but I think he’s worth that $12-13 M estimated price on his defense alone. If you look at the Baseball Prospectus numbers on blocking and pitch framing, he has been worth two wins per year for those skills, not counting any other aspect of his game. He does come with the risk that he’s getting older and his skills could decline, but I don’t think the defensive skills will see such a decline, especially since Martin keeps in good shape.
The Pirates have to be careful with the risks they take financially. They have to look for value, and avoid being stuck with a lot of dead weight in salary. Martin is a good risk to take. I’d say the impact he provides, and the role he plays on this team is only second to Andrew McCutchen. He’s one of the most important players to the Pirates winning. There is no one on the market who can even match what he can do. There’s no one in the system who the Pirates should trust to replace him in 2015. If Tony Sanchez comes up as the backup and proves himself in that role, then making the switch to Sanchez in 2016 would make sense. Otherwise, Martin is the best guy for the job, and a guy who deserves to be paid market rate, along with an aggressive pursuit to sign him.
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