Russell Martin has made his decision. He won’t be returning to the Pirates. Yesterday he agreed to a 5 year $82 million contract with the Blue Jays. That is a whopper of a deal that the Pirates had no hope of matching. Good for Russ. He played two terrific seasons in Pittsburgh to position himself for this mega-deal. Martin leaves Pittsburgh as a beloved player. He was an elite defensive catcher that oozed intangibles. In 2014 he also put up a career year offensively. The Pirates made the playoffs both seasons that Russell Martin played for them. That in itself speaks of Martin’s impact. This was a team that had posted 20 straight losing seasons prior to Russ’s arrival. As a tribute to Russell, here is the moment I will most remember him for. This dramatic three run blast off of Brewers’ reliever Jonathan Broxton in the 8th inning on 9/19/14 gave the Pirates a come from behind victory over the team that was chasing the Bucs in the Wild Card Standings.
We are barely two weeks into the MLB Hot Stove Season and Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington has already pulled the trigger on two major moves. On November 12th the Pirates acquired catcher Francisco Cervelli from the Yankees in exchange for pitcher Justin Wilson. Cervelli and backup catcher Chris Stewart make for a decent tandem that should give the Pirates at least a competent performance behind the dish in 2015. Although Cervelli won’t entirely make up for the loss of Russell Martin, he will make up for some of it. Cervelli rates well defensively. He is an above average pitch framer and the pitchers he has worked with in the past have raved about his game calling skills. He is not at Martin’s level when it comes to throwing out base stealers, but few catchers are. Cervelli can also hit a little bit. He has a career OPS of .729. Last season he posted a triple slash line of .301/.370/.432 in 49 games with New York. Solid numbers for a catcher for sure, albeit in a small sample. The biggest concern with Cervelli is staying on the field. He has missed games with a variety of ailments, most notably a broken hand and a hamstring strain. He also served a 50 game suspension for being linked to PEDs in the Biogenesis scandal. Cervelli has some warts, but he is a much better option for the Pirates than being stuck with no alternative than to hand the job to Tony Sanchez.
A few days after trading for Cervelli the Pirates then were reunited with an old friend when they signed free agent pitcher A.J. Burnett to a 1 year $8.5 million contract. Burnett signed with Philadelphia last off season after two years with the Pirates in which he posted a 26-21 record and a 3.41 ERA. A.J. found that the grass wasn’t as green on the other side of the state. The Phillies were a bad team and Burnett struggled as he pitched through a hernia all season. Burnett decided he didn’t want to finish his career on a team with no playoff hopes, so he declined his $12.75 million option to return to the Phillies in 2015. Burnett essentially took a $4 million pay cut because he wanted to return to the Pirates. I’m sure that went a long way in repairing any bridges that had been burned from his spat with manager Clint Hurdle over being passed up to pitch in Game 5 of the 2013 N.L.D.S against the Cardinals and from his indecision over whether or not to retire. Both Burnett and the Pirates had some differences that needed to be reconciled to pave the way for his return. That it happened at all is surprising. That it happened so quickly is almost unfathomable.
That is really the story of both of these moves from the past week. Neal Huntington is not wasting any time to improve the club. He is not allowing other players/teams to dictate the timing of his moves. This is a huge departure from how he approached things last year. Last off season Huntington allowed himself to be hamstrung waiting on A.J Burnett to decide if he was going to retire or not. Instead of aggressively pursuing a Plan B and a Plan C he kept money aside to sign A.J. Burnett. That money never got spent. This offseason has been the complete opposite. Although Huntington would like to resign Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano he wasn’t going to allow their decisions to leave him empty handed. He got a replacement catcher and a replacement for the starting rotation that make for good Plan B’s. And he still has money available and plenty of time left in the offseason to make more moves to improve the club.
It is less than a week into free agency and it is clear that the suitors for former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin are wasting no time in lining up. Martin has already met with the Cubs, and he has plans to meet with the Blue Jays and the Dodgers later this week. With all of these large market clubs that are flush with clash coveting the 31 year old backstop, the hopes that the Pirates can retain him are dwindling. Martin is going to get a huge pay day from some team. That team should not be the Pirates.
Russell Martin had an impressive season offensively in 2014. To a large degree that was a mirage. Martin is a smart professional hitter. But he is not a hitter that can be counted on to post an OPS of over .750, let alone reproducing the .832 OPS he had in 2014. That was largely the result of a ridiculously high BABIP of .336 that will surely regress next season. Martin will still be a solid hitter as far as catchers go, but only because the bar is very low for the position. League average OPS for catchers was just .701 in 2014. Going forward Martin is more likely to hit like he did from 2011 thru 2013. His OPS over that period was just .716. It is not Martin’s offensive projections that creates value in the eyes of the teams chasing him. It is his steady defensive production that has teams salivating over their chances of signing him. But is Martin’s defensive value something a team like the Pirates should be committing upwards of $60 million to?
Take a look at the following career totals of defensive stats for three current major league catchers in their early 30′s:
||Framing Runs per 7000
||Blocking Runs per 7000
These are three comparable defensive catchers. All three are well above average at throwing out base stealers, framing pitches, and blocking balls in the dirt. Two of the three were acquired last off season in trades. Two of the three have have salaries of less than $5 million. The other is Russell Martin.
Player A is Russell Martin
Player B is Ryan Hanigan
Player C is Chris Stewart.
Clearly a quality defensive catcher can be found without handing out an enormous multi-year contract. The Rays and Pirates did not have to trade any high end prospects to obtain Hanigan and Stewart last winter. So if defense is what you desire from your catcher why pay a premium for it on the free agent market? Martin does produce more offense than Hanigan and Stewart. But how significant is that boost in offense? It might be less than you think. In fact, over his career Hanigan has an on base percentage only slightly less than Russell Martin. Ryan Hanigan has a .353 career OBP versus .354 OBP for Russell Martin. If Martin were to hit like he did in 2014 then of course he would be much more valuable. However, we know that to be a pipe dream….just like the Pirates chances of ever signing a 31 year old catcher to a 4 year $60 million contract. It was never going to happen, so let’s not get defensive about it.
It might not look like it, but Pedro Alvarez really did become a better hitter in 2014. He made huge strides in his plate discipline. Pedro took more walks and cut down on his strikeouts. He posted a career best 10.1 BB% and 25.4 K%. So why didn’t these improvements result in Pedro having a career year? The answer lies mostly with a decrease in his home run per fly ball rate. After two straight seasons of having an HR/FB rate over 25%, Pedro’s HR/FB dropped to 16.2% in 2014. Had he maintained an HR/FB rate of 25% he would have blasted 10 more home runs this season. What is interesting about Pedro’s dip in home run rate is that it came entirely from balls he pulled. His HR/FB on balls hit to CF and LF actually increased. In fact, they were the highest rates of his career. But fly balls that he pulled only left the yard 22.7% of the time this season. That was down from 66.7% in 2013 and 70.8% in 2012. In his career over 52.2% of the fly balls he has pulled have gone for home runs. So what we have is a player that had better plate discipline this season and got more out of the balls he hit to the opposite field, but couldn’t yank a ball into the right field seats. That just seems like an anomaly that is bound to correct itself. If Pedro’s improved plate discipline can hold next season that offensive explosion could still happen.