Now that we’re rolling into season preview season, I’m starting to notice a trend in Pirate previews. There are really, really positive previews and there are guardedly optimistic ones. The dividing line between the two tends to be what the previewer thinks of the absence of Russell Martin. I mainly noticed this while reading the Bucs Dugout preview, in which Charlie is a little more guarded than me in regards to this year’s team, and the loss of Martin is a big reason why.
I thought about this some (Charlie and I have both blogged more than ten seasons of Pirate baseball (which, holy crap) and we agree more often than we don’t, so whenever we diverge I tend to take some time to think about why), and after doing so, I’m starting to wonder if maybe the circumstances around Martin’s departure have caused me (and probably others) to discount the true impact of his loss.
When the off-season began, my basic thoughts on the Martin situation were this: the Pirates shouldn’t match a crazy four or five year offer for Martin, and that should the Pirates lose Martin, they should focus on replacing the aspect of Martin’s game that they could only get from a catcher (framing, defense behind the plate, etc.) rather than the full package, as not many catchers are capable of what Martin did in 2014 and trying to replace that would be a misplaced focus. When the Pirates traded for Francisco Cervelli and let Martin walk to Toronto on a five-year/$82 million deal, I more or less considered them to have done what needed done in the situation. Cervelli’s defensive reputation is good enough that Brandon McCarthy went out of his way to praise the Pirates for the trade on Twitter, he’s got some offensive upside, and Chris Stewart is a good enough defense-oriented backup. The Cervelli/Stewart tandem won’t be Russell Martin, but they won’t be Ryan Doumit and Ronny Paulino, either.
What I’m wondering now that I’m starting to look at the big picture of the season is this: is Russell Martin actually replaceable? In the Pirates two playoff seasons, Andrew McCutchen (14.3) and Starling Marte (10.6 — sidenote: this guy does not get enough credit for how good he already is) are the only position players that have more WAR than Martin’s 9.9. It’s fine to say that losing Martin meant that the Pirates needed to replace his defense behind the plate (which they probably did) and then to use the other positions to make up the offensive gap (which they might have done), but that completely misses the fact that losing Martin means they lost one of their best players.
I don’t want to assign some kind of mythical “team leader” value to any player on the team and so I won’t dispute the idea that the Pirates could make up the missing Martin value from Cervelli, Stewart, Tony Sanchez, and offensive improvements at first base and in right field. The problem is that they’re now counting on three catchers, two first basemen, and a right fielder to replace the value created by one important player. It certainly might work — I think the catching tandem will be fine and I think I’m less worried about Pedro Alvarez and Gregory Polanco than the average Pirate fan — it’s just that there are a lot of places that this can go wrong. Players get hurt, players forget how to throw the ball to first base, players disappoint, and the list keeps going on and on.
The other side of this is that the Pirates didn’t just swap Martin out for Cervelli and move forward. They’re actually deceptively different from last year, with changes at first base and right field and a revamped bench, in addition to the new starting catcher. I do think that most of these changes are relatively high-upside gambles for the Pirates, and the end result is that the season might end with the club barely missing Martin at all. That’s not a sure thing, though, even if it looks like now like the club pulled plenty of the right levers in replacing him. That’s the scary part: it’s hard to replace a player like Russell Martin, even if you do mostly everything right.
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