Getting Victor Martinez can be a plus for Tigers, with a catch
Victor Martinez is a catcher and will turn 32 next month. The sad fate of most slow power hitters in their early thirties being well-known, you might wonder just why the Detroit Tigers would want to sign him to a four-year, $50 million contract, which the two sides have reportedly reached a preliminary agreement on. Think it through for a while, and you'll still be wondering.
The Tigers played .500 ball in a weak AL Central this year despite terrific seasons from such players as first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who led the league in on-base percentage and finished second in the AL MVP voting, and Austin Jackson, who finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. Aside from those two and starting pitchers Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, they have no players who seem likely to be even average next year. Their main strength, aside from the presence of Cabrera and Verlander, is that none of their players are bad.
Martinez is of questionable use to such a team, both in theory and especially in practice.
The theory is this: As a career .300/.369/.469 hitter and a passable defender, Martinez is worth about three wins above replacement in a typical year, which is very good but makes him more a complementary player than a star. Signing Martinez probably doesn't even bring the Tigers up to the level of the Chicago White Sox, who finished second in the division in 2010 and have lineup holes but an exceptionally good pitching staff, let alone the two-time defending division champion Minnesota Twins. For the deal to put the Tigers in a really strong position for next year Martinez would have to be joined by a player on the level of Cliff Lee, which seems unlikely. This is a problem because signing a 32-year-old catcher is by definition something you do because you want immediate benefit, and finishing in third place with 84 wins rather than 81 isn't really much of a benefit.
In practice, Martinez just may not be ideal for the Tigers. He would be most useful to a team with no good catcher, but Detroit has a promising one in Alex Avila, just 23. This means that the Tigers will either be sitting a talented kid or using Martinez as their main designated hitter, which would be a terrible waste, as while he's a strong hitter for a catcher, there are several comparable hitters on the market who would cost nothing close to $50 million. Hideki Matsui, for one, is a very good bet to hit as well as Martinez this year, and though Derrek Lee probably won't, he'' still be productive and he and Matsui will also be paid a lot less than Martinez will.
All of this sounds negative, but the Tigers are a decent team that just signed a very good player, and those are good to have. Additionally, Martinez's age and position might not be nearly as much a concern as one might think, as catchers with bats of similar quality -- think Jorge Posada, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Simmons and Mickey Tettleton -- have tended to age fairly well. This may not be a great play for the Tigers, but it definitely isn't a bad one. (At least as long as they let the man catch.)
The Red Sox, meanwhile, are lucky that the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays are reportedly planning to cut payroll and have to rebuild their entire bullpen this winter, because the loss of Martinez leaves Boston, which finished in third place in the East last season, with an extremely sketchy catching situation. As of right now its top backstop is 25-year-old Jarrod Saltalamacchia, an apparently busted prospect who has in four seasons more or less embodied the theoretical replacement level, and the free agent catchers on the market are weak.
If the Rays were stronger, the loss of three or so wins might be devastating for the Red Sox, but as of right now they still look to be a decent bit better than potential wild card rivals like the White Sox, Rays and Angels. The signing does make it important that they either resign or adequately replace third baseman Adrian Beltre, something which has surely set famed agent Scott Boras to gloating. In that sense, the most important thing about this deal may not be so much where Martinez signed, as where he didn't.