Last off-season was filled with a lot of drama surrounding A.J. Burnett, qualifying offers, and the Pittsburgh Pirates approach with free agency and the percentage that individual players take up on the team payroll.
Prepare for act two this coming off-season.
The Pirates will go through the same situation again with Russell Martin. To be accurate, it won’t be the exact situation. There won’t be a chance of Martin saying that he’s either going to play for the Pirates or retire, then debate his future for months, then decide he will play for a team other than the Pirates. This will be a pretty straight forward situation — the Pirates have a good player leaving for free agency, and he’ll be looking for his final big payday.
Burnett wasn’t signed last year, and I was fine with that. The Pirates had some good pitching depth, and they’ve shown a good ability to find value when it comes to pitchers. As it turns out, not signing Burnett hasn’t hurt them at all. He would currently be the sixth best starter on the team, based on xFIP. The Pirates have seen their depth step up, but Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole haven’t pitched like aces. If Burnett was on the team, he’d be joining those two as a guy who has disappointed by pitching below his previous levels.
It won’t be the same situation with Martin. The Pirates don’t have a track record of landing catchers at a big value. Martin was the first big success story, and that happened because they paid him for his defense, when no one else would pay more than $8.5 M a year because of his declining offense. The offense has picked up this year, but even without the offense, Martin is worth every penny for his defensive skills.
We might be reaching a point where the defense for a guy like Martin starts to get appreciated. There are already some teams who are putting a lot of stock into pitch framing, and the Pirates are one of them. Baseball Prospectus has been following that trend very closely, to the point where they’ve put a number on the value of each catcher’s skills. Based on that study, Martin’s pitch framing and blocking skills are worth at least two extra wins alone each year.
The upcoming off-season will give us a great idea about how the league values defense behind the plate just two years after the Pirates signed Martin. Brian McCann got $17 M per year this past off-season, although he had offensive skills that Martin hasn’t shown on a consistent basis the last few years. If McCann is worth that much, then Martin should be worth at least the qualifying offer amount — if teams are valuing his defense correctly. If not, then he might be a bigger value at a lower price. He wanted $9-10 M for four years before taking two years and $17 M from the Pirates. He’s probably going to get that $9-10 M figure this time around, if not more.
The Pirates need to bring back Martin. That has to be priority number one. You can justify them passing on a guy like Burnett, and not spending big on pitching because of the success Ray Searage and Jim Benedict have had working with reclamation projects. But Martin has so much value to this team. Every time I’m editing an article on this site that features a quote from a Pirates’ pitcher, it includes a comment about Martin that only illustrates his value. These aren’t your standard quotes to give the catcher praise, but offering up specifics on how Martin makes them more comfortable throwing their stuff, and how he makes his game plan specific to the pitcher and not the batter.
If you look at the upcoming list of free agent catchers (via MLBTR), you’ll see a pretty bleak list outside of Martin.
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)
There’s not really much available, especially when you look at the pitch framing skills and see that no one can touch Martin’s value.
Then you look at the internal situation. Tony Sanchez isn’t looking like a starting catcher. His defense, and specifically his throwing, has been too inconsistent. This was supposed to be a year where he showed he would be able to take over for Martin. He hasn’t done that, and we’re now seeing the importance of bringing Martin back. It’s possible that Sanchez could be a starter in a year or two. It’s possible that Elias Diaz could be a sleeper starter in a few years. The Pirates need someone before these things possibly happen, and that someone should be Martin.
The benefit here is that so much of Martin’s value comes from his defense, and that’s not a skill that projects to decline in the next few years. The Pirates could bring him back on a three-year deal, and hopefully bridge the gap until Reese McGuire is ready to arrive.
I don’t put much stock in the public comments that were made about the A.J. Burnett situation, whether it was the resistance to make a qualifying offer, or the comments about one player taking up X percentage of the payroll. I think the Pirates just felt they didn’t have to pay that much for Burnett. When it comes to Martin, all of that should be thrown out the window. Martin can take up a large chunk of the payroll, because he plays such a large part on the team. If needed, he should receive a qualifying offer, because the Pirates either need to be aggressive in bringing him back, or need to get some sort of compensation if he leaves. This past year they missed out on James Loney because they didn’t want to give him a three-year contract. If that’s what it takes with Martin, then sign him up for three years.
The Pirates have often looked for value on the open market. But a lot of that comes from the pitching side. When it comes to hitters, they’ve paid prices that were considered above the market rate. That includes Martin, as the Pirates out-bid the Yankees by a few million to get him. This usually happens when they value something about the player much more than other teams, as they did with Martin’s defense last time around. We’ll see how the rest of the league has adjusted this time around. They’ve acted fast with offensive signings, making an aggressive offer early, before other teams can get heavily involved. That needs to be the case again this off-season with Martin, or preferably sooner.
Links and Notes
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.