Friday, November 30, 2012

Russell Martin Joins Bucs

Well, the Bucs needed a catcher, and went after another good glove guy in Russell Martin. Martin signed a two-year, $17M deal with Pittsburgh, with a $2M signing bonus, a $6.5M salary in 2013 and an $8.5M salary in 2014 (he earned $7.5M last season). It's the richest contract awarded by the Pirates, eclipsing Clint Barmes $10.5M deal last year.

Martin was said to be on good terms with Clint Hurdle since a 2008 All-Star meeting, and he told Martin Weinstein of the NY Times that “My boy A. J. Burnett is there, and I really like the direction they are going with a lot of good young talent. It'll be fun."

He hit .211 with 21 HR and 53 RBI last season, and that's kinda a good news, bad news number. Like Rod Barajas before him, he's a below average stick (he hasn't hit over .250 since 2008) with some power. The good news is that his BABIP last year was .222, so that should regress upward. The bad news is that he's a right handed pull hitter, and PNC Park is not a good place to be one of those.

Still, the Pirates needed a catcher, and limited their exposure to two years by overpaying for him, although that would be true of virtually any FA who inks a deal with the Bucs. They do get a physical guy who is a decent defender and has over 7,500 innings behind the dish.

He's played for the Los Angeles Dodgers (2006–2010) and New York Yankees (2010-2012), and is a three-time MLB All-Star (2007–2008, 2011).

Martin was born in Toronto, Ontario and grew up in Chelsea, Quebec. Naturally, beside playing baseball, Martin played hockey, too. But he stuck with spikes instead of skates and went to Chipola College in Marianna, Florida after high school, where he played 3B.

The Los Angeles Dodgers selected Martin in the 17th round of the 2002 draft, and the Blue switched him to catcher. He went a step at a time in the minors, and was a Florida State League All-Star  in 2004 and Baseball America 2nd Team Minor League All-Star and Southern League All-Star while with the Class AA Jacksonville Suns in 2005.

He got a month in with AAA Las Vegas before getting his call to the show when Dionner Navarro, LA's starting catcher, hurt his wrist. Martin took it from there, putting up a slash of .282./355/.436. Navarro was traded and Martin became the everyday guy behind the dish for the City of Angels. He held the spot for five years.

His first three seasons were monsters, as he was selected to the All-Star team twice while taking home a Silver Slugger trophy and Golden Glove award in 2007. But he tailed off offensively starting in 2009, and the slide has continued. After two years in the .250 range, LA didn't tender him in arbitration (ironically, Rod Barajas replaced him), and Martin became a FA. He signed with the Yankees, which needed a replacement for Jorge Posada. In his two Big Apple years, he hit .237 and .211.

Martin's BA went from .250 to .211 and his OBP slipped from .352 to .311 in those four years. And that's why he's here now, pending tomorrow's physical.

The Pirates are banking on him still having some gas in the tank, inking him for his age 30 and 31 seasons. He is a good defensive catcher, especially at framing pitches, with a 30% lifetime toss-'em-out rate (24% in 2012), although his pitch calling has sometimes been questioned. Martin caught AJ in 2011, and beside that connection, he threw out 24% of runners when catching him; it was 5% with Hot Rod as his battery mate last season.

Bill James predicts his 2013 BA to be .242, not great but certainly achievable as Martin has kept up a pretty steady 19% line drive average over the years. James also looks for a bounce-back in OBP to .340, and that's probably in line too, as Martin has walked at a 10-11% rate the past two seasons. The question will be his power; PNC isn't nearly as friendly as the new Yankee Stadium, where Martin had two of his best three MLB HR years.

At 5'10", 205 pounds, Martin is sturdy and fairly athletic. Per Weinstein, he'd like to play on the Canadian World team as an infielder, and has played 3B a bit in the majors, so the Bucs can possibly work him in on his off days at the hot corner to give Pedro a blow against lefties. Even if they don't, he's caught 125 games or so the past two seasons, and except for a hip injury in 2009 has stayed healthy during his career.

There will be some moaning about his price tag; many think it should have been invested in another pitcher. But catcher was a black hole on the roster, and he buys some more time for Tony Sanchez to develop. The move doesn't necessarily mean the Bucs have given up on Sanchez; otherwise we think they may have taken the trade route rather than plunge into the more expensive FA market. It also shows the Bucs are willing to dig a little deeper into Bob Nutting's wallet, as his signing means the payroll may hit the $65M mark this season.

If Martin bats in the .240 range with a dozen homers, 50 RBI and some walks to go with his defensive mojo, it'll be a good contract. He and Mike McKenry should be a competent pairing behind the dish. But there is risk; as we mentioned, his offensive numbers across the board have been in decline, and the facts that the Yankees let him go and the Bucs got him on a two-year deal are indications of that downhill slope. So the Pirates are rolling the dice that Martin can hold the fort until...if...Sanchez is ready.

Oh, if only Dave Littlefield would have passed on Daniel Moskos and taken Matt Weiters in 2007...

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