No one escapes his past and his capabilities. Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island was a decent film; as a work in the line of the man who made The King of Comedy, it was a travesty. Manny Ramirez was a strong hitter this year, good for a .409 on-base average and 45 extra-base hits in 104 games; because of who he is, the world has him figured as cashed out.
Catcher Russell Martin, fresh New York Yankee, is the victim of similar logic. Two years ago, at 25, he was fresh off a second straight All Star campaign, the owner of Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, one of the more coveted players in baseball. Now, at 27, he's signing a one-year contract for $4 million plus incentives. First basemen who are 32-years-old and can't break the Mendoza line are making two and a half times as much guaranteed cash. (Or at least one is, but if there were more they, too, would be getting paid like Carlos Peña.)
Part of the issue is health, as Martin tore up his hip in August and missed the rest of the season. The greater problem is declining hitting. Martin draws a lot of walks, but that's all he does well. Across 975 plate appearances over the last two years, he's been a .249/.350/.330 hitter.
Lousy as that is, though, it isn't bad for a catcher. Anyone who can physically play the position and do anything at all with the bat has some value. Just 17 men did better in 600 or more plate appearances in 2010, and several of them, like Ryan Doumit and Jorge Posada, are not considered viable defensive players. Add in some prospects like Carlos Santana and account for defense -- Martin's reputation has suffered lately, but his numbers are just fine and there is no reason to think he can't handle a staff -- and there are probably, at most, a dozen better catchers in the game, even assuming he never regains best form.
Not everyone is great. Not everyone can be. It's likely best to forget what Martin was and pay attention to what he is: Young and competent with the potential to be more. Pick up enough such players and you'll uncover the odd Nick Swisher; pick up enough of those and you will, if you run a $200 million payroll, win 105 games every year.
Complaints that Martin might block young catcher Jesus Montero are absurd. Leaving aside his apparently sketchy defense, Montero turned 21 two weeks ago. You can literally write the list of catchers who have played a full season at that age on your palm. If he proves to have that kind of talent he'll play.
It probably wouldn't have been possible for the Pittsburgh Pirates to sign Martin, given the unique stage New York offers. He is absolutely the kind of player the fantastically bad Pirates should be spending too much money on, though, one who could be worth a lot more than he makes. What they're doing instead reminds me of a guy I once saw on the bank of the Mississippi River shooting wharf rats and sighting along his big toe.
So far this winter the Pirates have dropped a bit more than $17 million on pitcher Kevin Correia, outfielder Matt Diaz and first baseman Lyle Overbay. Have you ever wondered exactly what the theoretical replacement player looks like? It looks more or less like Correia and Diaz, a sixth starters or platoon outfielders who could have ended up in the Atlantic League but instead caught breaks. They are the very definition of free talent, replaceable by any number of career minor leaguers. Overbay is considerably better than that, a near-bargain at $5 million, but of little more use to the Pirates than a pile of rusty tuning forks and a map of King Leopold's colonial holdings would be.
Consider this: Seventeen million dollars is enough to have tripled the guaranteed money due Martin and glass-brittle Rich Harden, who will be with the Oakland A's in 2011. Spending such a sum on these two would be absurd, but at least carry some chance of return. (July 2011: "In a miraculous turn, Russell Martin and Rich Harden have returned to form, and Tampa Bay and Texas are offering their entire farm systems for the pair.") If that would be absurd, how much more so to spend it as they actually have?
It's amazing, considering how many words have gone into analyzing Cliff Lee signing with the Philadelphia Phillies, that there are two points to make that may not have been already made.
One is this: Remember that time Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners won the Cy Young award and it was hailed as a great breakthrough for baseball rationalism even though it kind of wasn't? Lee's deal is a bit like that except that it actually is.
For all Lee's virtues, it isn't necessarily obvious that he's a great pitcher. Over the last two years his record is 26-22, with a good-not-brilliant 3.20 ERA. His postseason legend aside, he's made four World Series starts with a 4.55 ERA. His contribution to the Texas Rangers' playoff run was a 4-6 record and a 3.98 ERA. Even by an old school sabermetric measure like adjusted ERA he's less than the bee's knees, with a 131 mark over the last two years.
It isn't hard to imagine a scenario where baseball pundits collectively decided that Lee's reputation was a lot of sabermetric nonsense. This is speculation, but I'd credit some of the esteem in which the man is held to a general recognition that won-loss records and even ERA and its derivatives are not the best measures of a pitcher's worth -- and that esteem is backed not just by an award, but by the $120 million Lee just signed for.
The second point is this: As good as the Phillies' rotation is, it isn't all that much better than, say, the Chicago White Sox'. (Here is where Sox general manager Ken Williams decides that there are two sane men in this insane world.) This is what the members of each team's rotation have averaged over the past three years, rWAR measuring their value in wins above a Kevin Correia, replacement-level type:
The ERAs are a bit closer in value than they look, since the Chicago pitchers have largely been working in a good home run park in the DH league. Twenty-five innings is a considerable difference, but the sort of thing that might be wiped out with a fluke injury here or there. And this assumes that the Phillies will keep reliable No. 5 starter Joe Blanton rather than trading him to save money and swapping in a dodgier alternative.
I would of course take Philadelphia's rotation over Chicago's, but they'll need things to go well to even have the best rotation in baseball next year, let alone the best ever. In addition to the White Sox, the San Francisco Giants, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, among other teams, also have very good pitchers. I'm so old I remember when the 2008 Detroit Tigers were going to score 1,000 runs. (They ended up scoring 821.)
If you want evidence that Oakland A's GM Billy Beane is these days working not on the cutting edge but on the scraping-your-face-until-it-bleeds-and-gives-you-tetanus edge, consider the following. New A's DH Hideki Matsui's decent but unimpressive 2010, in which he hit .274/.361/.459, has been meaningfully exceeded in the last four years by one Athletic, Jack Cust, who hit well in 2007 and 2008 and about as well as Matsui did last year. Cust, the younger player by five years, has signed with the Seattle Mariners for $2.5 million; Matsui will make $4.25 million with Oakland. Whether this says more about the team's shabby offense or Beane's eye for market inefficiencies is hard to say.
Happy days in Cincinnati, where the Reds have locked down terrific 23-year-old outfielder Jay Bruce to an unreasonable six-year, $54 million deal that even carries a $13 million option for 2017. One simply hopes that he doesn't meet the unfortunate fate of such previous terrific young Reds outfielders as Kal Daniels, Eric Davis and Austin Kearns -- all felled by falling anvils, mysterious biowarfare experiments and the like so that they could never meet their full potential -- or even Adam Dunn and Paul O'Neill, who had to escape Ohio just to have people not yell at them. In way of the latter, it will help if Bruce does what he certainly has the talent to do, which is overtake league MVP Joey Votto as the team's best player as soon as this year.