With each passing game, Russell Martin‘s value to the Pirates seems to become clearer and clearer. A 3-for-4 night on Thursday which included a home run, two runs batted in, and a walk helped the Pirates avoid a sweep in St. Louis.
He’s now started 50 games in 2014 — the Bucs have won 29 of them. That’s a .580 winning percentage; a 94-win pace stretched over 162 games, exactly the number the Pirates hit a year ago. While that’s obviously not all Martin, he’s sure done his share to help the team win.
A .282 batting average, his best since 2007. A 13.8% walk rate, his best since 2008. A ridiculous .413 on-base percentage and 140 wRC+, his best marks ever. Martin’s offense is some of the best it’s been in his career. His defense is top tier as usual, and he consistently ranks among the best at receiving.
All this being said, the Pirates have a big moment ahead of them — can they pony up the cash to keep this guy around?
Take a look at next year’s free agent catchers, via MLB Trade Rumors:
Catchers (Age in parentheses)
John Buck (34)
Ryan Doumit (34)
Nick Hundley (31) – $5MM club option
Gerald Laird (35)
Russell Martin (32)
Jeff Mathis (32) – $1.5MM club option
Wil Nieves (36)
Miguel Olivo (36)
A.J. Pierzynski (38)
David Ross (38)
Geovany Soto (32)
Kurt Suzuki (31)
Without even digging into the numbers, that’s a pretty terrible group. All are on the wrong side of 30, with an average age of 34. A handful of backups. A guy who’s now playing in Mexico because he bit a teammate’s ear off in May (Olivo). Pierzynski was so annoying to the Red Sox (on his phone nonstop in the clubhouse) that they’ve dumped him before the All-Star break. Buck, Doumit, and Ross have already made their rounds with the Pirates.
Here are the 2014 offensive numbers on this group:
Only two have been worth more than one win above replacement; one is an All-Star (Suzuki) and the other should be.
In the age of six-year-control of players and long term extensions for budding stars, the ability to find an impact player via free agency is becoming harder — especially for small market squads like the Pirates. They were lucky to hit on Martin and Francisco Liriano a year ago, though they’ve missed on far more. I think it’s almost fair to say that any of those guys listed above (maybe not Suzuki) would be another miss.
This has placed an increasing need on development through the draft & farm system, which the Pirates have clearly focused on through the Neal Huntington era. The catcher that they’ve been priming in the minors for years, ’09 first round pick Tony Sanchez, may or may not be the answer. He’s a fan favorite for his sensational tweets and witty humor, though the baseball ability isn’t translating. Originally seen as a defensive guy without much of a bat, Sanchez has actually hit more than he’s fielded over the years. Problem is, he’s now struggling with the stick at Triple-A, slashing just .203/.305/.398 in 41 games. And we’ve seen how badly his throwing has affected him:
Is Sanchez your starting guy next year? It’s hard to look at what he’s doing right now and say that he is.
As tough as it is to develop or sign a catcher, I imagine it would just as hard for the Pirates to go out and trade for one. There are only so many solid catchers out there, and there aren’t going to be many for sale.
The money will be there for Russell Martin next season. It may not be from the Pirates. Looking at that free agent class, it shouldn’t be hard for him to attract a buyer. He won’t have much competition on the market other than Suzuki, and any team that needs a catcher should be going after Martin if they’ve been paying attention.
I would love to see them keep Martin around. It should be priority #1 for them. However, I feel like extension talks better start soon (Martin said he’d be “stupid not to listen” to negotiations), or else they might miss out on him this winter. Even if his offense drops off in the second half, he’s proved what his worth is in Pittsburgh. Some team is going to call him this offseason, and they’re going to be willing to dish out more than the two-year, $17 million he got from the Pirates two winters ago.
They won’t last in a bidding war. Go for it now. Try to re-sign Russ.