Almost two years ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Russell Martin to the biggest free agent deal in franchise history. The deal was for two years and $17 M, outbidding the New York Yankees by a few million. Martin turned down a three-year deal from the Pirates, opting to enter free agency a year earlier. That turned out to be a very wise decision.
At the end of the 2013 season, I looked at Martin compared to the previous catchers in the system, such as Rod Barajas, Chris Snyder, and Ryan Doumit. It wasn’t difficult to rank better than those catchers, and Martin’s defense alone made him about three wins more valuable in 2013 than Barajas in 2012. This year, Martin went a step further, and became one of the most valuable players in baseball.
Behind the plate, Martin’s defense was once again outstanding. He ranked first in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved, with 12, finishing one ahead of Jonathan Lucroy, and three ahead of Yadier Molina, Carlos Ruiz, and Salvador Perez, who tied for third with 8 DRS. He tied Wellington Castillo for first in Stolen Base Runs Saved, with 6. Overall, FanGraphs rated him as the fifth best defensive catcher in the majors.
Those rankings don’t include Pitch Framing, which is an area where Martin excels. He was worth 19.3 framing runs, which could be the equivalent of about two wins. That tied for fifth in all of baseball.
It wasn’t just defense this year for Martin. His offense came up big, with his best year since 2007, and the second best year of his career. Martin had an .832 OPS, fueled by a .290 average. His walk rate was up slightly from last year, going from 11.5% to 12.8%. His power was down slightly, going from a .151 ISO to a .140 ISO. What helped Martin offensively was his .336 BABIP, which was the highest mark of his career, and about 50 points higher than his career line of .289.
Martin’s offense this year fueled him to be one of the best players in baseball. He had a 5.3 WAR, which tied for 20th in the majors. If you add the pitch framing numbers to the WAR numbers, Martin would have been the fourth most valuable player in baseball this year, behind Jonathan Lucroy, Mike Trout, and Buster Posey.
Going forward, Martin’s offense isn’t going to be as good as it was in 2014. His BABIP certainly won’t stay where it was this year, and his declining power numbers the last two years are a concern when the batting average ends up dropping. But Martin will still have plenty of value due to his defense. That defense doesn’t look like it is declining. He’s been number one in DRS the last two years, and it’s not close. His pitch framing has been top five in each of the last two years. The offense gave him a lot of attention this year, but the defense is what will make him worth paying for in the future.
The biggest subject this off-season will be the Pirates’ ability to re-sign Martin. It might not even be something they can control. If a big spender like the Dodgers, Rangers, or Red Sox decide that they want Martin as their starting catcher, then the Pirates simply won’t be able to out-bid those teams.
This isn’t like two years ago, when the Yankees wanted Martin, but the Pirates were one of few teams to see the value in catcher defense. That value has become widely known the last two years. The Yankees turned down a reported four-year and $40 M demand from Martin at the time. They offered a reported three years and $20 M. Now Martin is looking at four years easily, and more than $10 M per year.
If the Pirates can’t bring Martin back, then they’ll have a problem in the short-term. Their current internal options are Chris Stewart, Tony Sanchez, and Elias Diaz. All three profile as backups. Stewart seems the most ready to take over out of the three, since he can play defense at the major league level. That has been a question mark for Sanchez.
Diaz is a better defender than Sanchez, and his defense is major league ready. However, there might be more to Diaz than just a backup who specializes in defense. His offensive tools always showed potential, and the offense broke out this year in Altoona. He hasn’t received much time above Double-A, and only had half a season of at-bats at the level. I’d be surprised if the Pirates rushed him to the majors. He might be an option to take over by mid-season, or maybe in 2016. If they go with him on Opening Day, they risk sacrificing his future upside, which could be a starting catcher.
In the long-term, the Pirates have a lot of options available. The top choice is Reese McGuire, who has the best defense in the system. That defense will eventually get McGuire to the majors, but if his offense comes together, he will be one of the best all-around catchers in the game. McGuire won’t be ready for another 3-4 years, so the Pirates will need someone to bridge the gap until he arrives. There are other interesting catching prospects in the lower levels of the minors, such as Jin-De Jhang, Jacob Stallings, Taylor Gushue, Kevin Krause, and Yoel Gonzalez. Some of those guys are just defensive specialists, and some are good for their offense, but will probably eventually move to another position. No matter what, they’re all behind McGuire on the depth charts.
It seems unlikely that the Pirates will be able to bring Martin back next year. That’s just based on the probability that one big market team will be interested in him, enough to push the bidding to a place where the Pirates can’t go. Elias Diaz looks like the best option to be the starting catcher in Pittsburgh until Reese McGuire arrives, although Diaz doesn’t look like he will be ready by the start of the 2015 season, and might not be ready in 2015 at all. The Pirates will need to find a one-year option if they can’t bring Martin back, and it’s unlikely that this option will be able to replicate the numbers that Martin put up defensively over the last two years.