Is Russell Martin Worth His New Contract?
Rarely will you see a contract during free agency that greatly benefits the team doing the signing. Most free agents are on the wrong side of 30, and giving them long-term deals is generally considered a bad way to fly.
On Monday, the Toronto Blue Jays said "Pshaw!" to that logic and signed catcher Russell Martin to a five-year, $82 million deal.
Martin is 31 years old and is generally seen as one of the best defensive catchers in the game. Last season, he also enjoyed a renaissance offensively, posting a nERD of 1.53 - meaning a lineup full of Martins would account for 1.53 runs a game more than a lineup full of league-average players. In 111 games he hit .290 with a .402 on-base percentage, a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .370, and a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 140, meaning he accounted for 40% more runs than a league-average player at his position.
He was worth 5.3 Wins Above Replacement via Fangraphs last year, and in 2013 was worth 4.1 fWAR. Clearly, the Jays are getting a good player.
Martin also holds a lot of value on defense as well. He threw out 37 attempted base stealers last year, most in the Majors, and was fourth with a caught-stealing percentage of 38.5%. Not only that, he is generally regarded as one of the best pitch-framers in the game (a metric not calculated as a part of WAR). According to StatCorner, Martin ranked 10th among all catchers who crouched behind the plate at any time last year, and in 2013 he ranked sixth. And according to Baseball Prospectus, he was second in all of baseball in getting his pitchers "extra strikes" because of his ability to frame pitches.
There is no doubt that Martin is a good player and will make the Blue Jays better next year.
It's the year after next, and the three years thereafter that are worrisome.
Yes, Martin enjoyed an offensive rebirth last year with Pittsburgh, but if you look at the seasons prior to 2014, you see a player who wasn't terribly impressive at the plate.
Martin has always been good at drawing a walk, with a career 11.6% walk-rate. That has helped his on-base percentage in the seasons in which he couldn't hit the ball at all. From 2009-2013, Martin was a below-to-league average run-producer.
He also benefited greatly from some offensive luck last year. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .336 was far better than his career number of .289, and well above the league average of .299. It's unlikely he'll see his BABIP that high again going forward, which will certainly depress his slash line.
This is not meant to bash Russell Martin. He is a fine player and should help tutor a Blue Jays rotation anchored by R.A. Dickey, Marcus Stroman, Mark Buehrle, Drew Hutchison, and J.A. Happ. And if Martin can help get Toronto to the playoffs and help lead them to a World Series, this contract will have been worth it. There are intangibles to catching, like working with pitchers and knowing how to call a game that cannot be quantified and at which Martin is seen as one of the best in the game.
But it's fair to speculate whether Martin will be able to produce the kinds of offensive numbers he did last year. And a five-year commitment to player in his early 30s for five years is definitely a win-now, pay-later move.
He does have a favorable ballpark for offensive players going for him, and he has always been regarded as a great athlete. And even though Dioner Navarro had a decent season this year (.271 batting average and 2.1 WAR) and is owed just $5 million this season, Toronto's catchers did finish with a .659 OPS that ranked 11th in all of baseball.
Clearly, general manager Alex Anthopoulos feels Martin can be more productive than what he had. And clearly the Blue Jays are believers in pitch framing, otherwise they would not have targeted Martin so aggressively.
One thing to note, the structure of Martin's deal makes him virtually untradeable. He'll make $7 million in 2015, $15 million in 2016, and then $20 million in each of his final three seasons, when his production level will likely be at its worst. It also means Toronto probably isn't done shopping yet.
This is the problem with Major League free agency. Good players are a rare commodity, and in order to land one, you have to overpay. Most thought Martin would secure a four-year deal, but Toronto obviously went the extra mile and added a fifth.
They'll likely regret that on the back-end. But all they're worried about right now is the front-end which, if Martin produces like he did last year, will make Jays fans very happy.
I'm just not sold he'll be able to do that.