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.
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