Rosenthal: Pirates agree to terms with Russell Martin

After some talk about a three-year deal yesterday, it appears that the terms between the Pirates and Martin are two years and $17 million. I was really, really harsh on the idea of signing Martin yesterday, but both Martin and my main issues with signing Martin go a little bit deeper than yesterday's post (and yes, now that you mention it, I was probably over-reacting just a bit). Since it looks like this is happening, let's go into it now. 

Russell Martin is a really good defensive catcher. I don't know how much better he'll be at throwing out runners for the Pirates in 2013 than Barajas and McKenry were in 2012 because I strongly suspect that the team's problem on that front had a lot to do with the pitchers, but Martin's value behind the plate goes deeper than that. When Mike Fast ranked the framing ability of all of baseball's catchers last fall for Baseball Prospectus, he ranked Martin as second to only Yadier Molina. The distance between Martin and Yorvit Torrealba in third place was not close. Fast works for the Astros now and so we don't have his 2012 rankings, but Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs tried to quantify the framing ability of catchers from PitchFX for this season and put the Yankees on top, with Martin as their main backstop. The Pirates, both with the Ryan Doumit lead revolving door at catcher before 2012 and with Barajas/McKenry last year, ranked pretty poorly. I've got plenty of questions about this kind of analysis (mainly I wonder how certain types of pitchers affect framing and if a team that focuses on, say, sinkerballers, might be affected in the rankings, plus I also have some pretty huge questions about umpire bias against teams perceived to be bad), but it seems pretty clear to me that Russell Martin will add defensive value behind the plate for the Pirates in 2012 whether he throws out 30% of base stealers or not. 

That being said, Russell Martin is not Yadier Molina. After a promising early career, his bat has pretty much evaporated. He hasn't had an OPS+ of over 100 since 2008 and didn't hit well in either of his seasons with the Yankees (.224/.317/.405). The New Yankee Stadium has a reputation as a great hitter's park, but the reality is that it appears to actually be a pretty neutral park for right-handed hitters and much of its reputation as a hitter's park is based on the ridiculous way that the ball jumps out of the park for left-handed hitters. The problem, of course, is that PNC Park is deadly for righties, so Martin's move from New York to Pittsburgh won't be nearly as adventageous as AJ Burnett's. A move from the AL East to the NL Central will help him, but the shift in parks will probably offset that. 

Again, though, Martin is a better hitter than the guy he's replacing. He draws walks more than 10% of the time and he's got some power (his .192 ISO would've put him behind only AJ Pierzynski and Buster Posey among qualified catchers if he had a few more plate appearances), but he strikes out a ton and won't hit for a high average. He's not a good hitter by any stretch, but it's not really fair to compare him to Barajas. 

If you roll all of these factors together — good-to-excellent defense (depending on how the team handles the holding runners situation), below average bat before considering that it's a bad fit for PNC Park — and consider Martin's age (he'll be 30 in February), it's probably safe to peg him as a 2-3 WAR player for the next two seasons. Assuming that he plays at that level, he'd be an upgrade over what the Pirates have had at catcher recently and the price the Pirates would be paying ($8.5 million per year) would be more than fair value, based on the open market. 

The main problem that I have with the deal is that just because a player is worth $8.5 million on the open market doesn't make him worth $8.5 million to the Pirates. This is an important distinction. That's $14 million in Clint Barmes and Russell Martin for one year for a team that probably won't crack $60 million on the total payscale. This is a team that has to consider trading Joel Hanrahan this winter because paying a closer $7.5 million on a $50-60 million budget is ridiculous, but that is now suddenly spending $8.5 million on a two-win catcher. 

That might be fine if the Pirates had their backs pressed up against the walls to play Barajas again in 2013, but they I'm not sure that they do. Mike McKenry drew walks and hit for power for the Pirates last year and his defense is probably not as bad as it appeared (his minor league CS% was pretty good) and it doesn't seem at all outlandish to me to suggest that McKenry + a backup (be it Tony Sanchez or someone else) might only be worth one win less than a Martin/McKenry tandem. That means that the Pirates aren't really paying market value for Martin, they're really paying $8.5 million for what might turn out to be a marginal upgrade over what they already have. 

Of course, we can't say that for certain because the games haven't been played yet. Martin is a relatively known quantity and McKenry is a huge, huge unknown that may have been an offensive fluke in 2012. Some of that $8.5 million will pay for that certainty. Some of that $8.5 million is paying for a real free agent who had other options with real, legitimate contenders choosing to sign with the Pirates. These are real concerns for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who've certainly been burned by free agents in the past. 

My gut feeling is still that I don't love this signing, though. I'm a big proponent of letting the off-season unfold and waiting for a finished product to judge, but I think that the depth of the pitching staff is a huge question mark and so I think it's really concerning that the club just burned $8.5 million or so on what might only be a marginal upgrade. There's been a lot of talk about non-tendering Jeff Karstens this winter and while I know that that idea gives most Pirate fans the howling fantods, I understand why a team in the Pirates' situation might think that no starter that's only going to throw 140 innings is worth $5 million/10% of their payroll (for the record: I wouldn't non-tender Karstens if I were in the Pirates' position but I wouldn't hesitate to shop him right now), but that line of thinking just doesn't dovetail at all with signing Martin for this kind of money. 

I think I'm more bugged by the strategy than anything else here. The Pirates have a finite amount of money to spend and teams in that position can very rarely find real help in free agency. It's fine to spend $8.5 million Russell Martin if that's the last $8.5 million you need to spend to get to the playoffs, but that's not the situation that the Pirates are in right now. They went to the free agent well in 2012 and came up dry, but they're back fishing in it again in 2013. While I think Martin is a better signing than Barajas or Barmes, I just think that the Pirates have to be more creative with their spending than this if they really want to to be successful.

Russell Martin is a pretty good catcher that helps the Pirates in a couple of ways. He's certainly better than the Great Rod of Carkoon that sucked the air out of PNC Park on so many occasions last year. I think he's probably worth $8.5 million to someone in 2013, but I'm not at all convinced that that team is the Pirates. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.