Blue Jays hope Russell Martin will help end another playoff drought
The team with the longest current postseason drought is spending big money in an attempt to change that. The Blue Jays have signed Russell Martin to a franchise-record contract in hopes that he can repeat what he did in Pittsburgh: help a team end a two-decade absence from the playoffs. Coming off a career-best season, the going-on-32-year-old backstop received a five-year, $82 million deal, one that looks better than the five-year, $85 million contract to which the Yankees signed Brian McCann last winter.
Martin enjoyed a banner 2014 for the Pirates, hitting .290/.402/.430 with 11 homers and setting career highs in on-base percentage and OPS+ (136). Behind the plate, he threw out 39 percent of would-be base thieves and was 12 runs above average according to Defensive Runs Saved. All told, Martin's 5.5 Wins Above Replacement was the second-best total of any catcher this year behind Jonathan Lucroy’s 6.8. That figure doesn't include Martin's exceptional work as a pitch framer, which, via Baseball Prospectus' metrics, ranked sixth in the majors at 19.3 runs above average.
Nor do those numbers quantify Martin's impact on handling pitchers or in the clubhouse, which is said to be substantial. While the Dodgers, who drafted Martin in 2002 and converted him to catching in the minor leagues, and the Yankees, who signed him after he was nontendered by Los Angeles in December 2010 but let him walk after two seasons, turned their noses up at him at one point, Martin arrived in Pittsburgh having made five trips to the postseason in his seven big league seasons. He's now seven-for-nine after helping the Bucs break a 20-season streak (1993-2012) of sub-.500 finishes and postseason absences with a pair of wild-card berths.
Martin didn’t do that alone, of course. The development of such position players as Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Josh Harrison; the turnarounds of pitchers A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez; and the work of an analytically inclined front office that bridged the gap to manager Clint Hurdle and his staff all played significant roles as well. Even so, up and down Pittsburgh's organization, Martin received a great deal of praise for his pivotal role. Here’s what Hurdle told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick in September:
"He's impacted this club as much as any player we have… Andrew McCutchen deserves all the recognition he gets, but Russell Martin is just as important a part of this ballclub as Andrew McCutchen is, in a different role.
"He has the ability to make every pitcher feel like he has an opportunity to be the best he's ever been that day on the mound … He brings an edge in the clubhouse and an edge when guys are in there lifting [weights]. Three hours before the game, he's dragging out guys who've never kicked a soccer ball in their life. Now they're out there kicking a ball. He's like the Pied Piper."
The Blue Jays hope Martin — who was born in East York, Ont., and raised in Montreal — can bring that magic to his home country, for they haven't been to the postseason since 1993, when they won their second consecutive World Series title. Toronto is the only team not to have reached the playoffs since the introduction of the three-division format and the addition of the wild card in each league in 1994 (though that year's postseason was, of course, canceled by the strike). The Jays went 83-79 in 2014, finishing with their best record since 2010; it was the first time they had finished higher than fourth place in the AL East since 2007.
While the Pirates expressed a willingness to stretch their payroll to keep Martin, it's not known whether they formally extended an offer beyond the one-year, $15.3 million qualifying offer needed to receive a compensatory draft pick in case he signed elsewhere. The Dodgers and Cubs were said to be in hot pursuit of Martin; on Sunday, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal said via Twitter that the latter was the "clear front-runner" for a deal said to be in the four-year, $64 million range.
To land Martin, the Blue Jays not only had to add a fifth year, they had to break from a longstanding tradition of not signing big-name free agents. Outfielder Melky Cabrera's two-year, $16 million deal after the 2012 season had been the largest contract previously given to a free agent by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who took over in late 2009. Not since late 2005, when predecessor J.P. Ricciardi signed the aforementioned Burnett to a five-year, $55 million deal and closer B.J. Ryan to a five-year, $47 million deal, has Toronto made such a splash in the free agent market. Since then, the team, the team has signed players to large extensions, notably Vernon Wells (seven years, $126 million for 2008-14), Alex Rios (seven years, $69.835 million covering 2008-14) and Jose Bautista (five years, $65 million covering 2011-15). With the exception of Burnett, who opted out after three years, and Bautista, who has remained one of the game's elite sluggers, all of those deals ended up going south quickly, though the Blue Jays were able to get out from under the Rios and Wells contracts with much of the money still remaining to be paid.
As they've meandered around .500 in recent years, the Jays have had a longstanding problem behind the plate, particularly as Anthopoulos retained the undisciplined J.P. Arencibia (the team's primary starter from 2011-13) while trading away Yan Gomes and Travis d'Arnaud. Prior to Dioner Navarro's 2.3 WAR season in 2014, the last time Toronto had a catcher worth more than 2.0 WAR in a single year was in 2007, when Gregg Zaun was worth 2.3. Navarro's solid season with the bat (.274/.317/.395 for a 100 OPS+) was undone by the majors' third-worst pitch-framing, according to BP's numbers (-13.8 runs), and the team's backups were worth a combined −0.4 WAR. While Navarro is still under contract for $5 million in 2015, the combination of that perennial problem, the availability of a marquee free agent and the sense that the AL East is in transition — with the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays no longer looking like powerhouses — were enough for Anthopoulos to break form.
Martin's deal is just $3 million shy of McCann's, which was the largest free agent contract ever given to a catcher, though both pacts are dwarfed by the extensions granted to Joe Mauer (eight years, $184 million) and Buster Posey (nine years, $167 million). While he's a year older and has only intermittently flashed the power of his Yankees counterpart, Martin has been the more valuable of the two catchers across just about every recent increment of their careers, particularly given that McCann's first year in the Bronx was a dud (.232/.286/.406 with 23 homers but just 1.8 WAR). Leaving pitch-framing out of the equation, since both are among the game's elite, Martin has been more valuable than McCann whether one looks at the last two years (9.9 WAR to McCann's 4.2), three years (11.6 to 5.0), four years (14.3 to 7.5) or five years (16.2 to 11.1).
McCann is the better hitter, with a career 115 OPS+ to Martin's 103, but Martin holds a significant edge defensively (+59 DRS to −9). Both catchers have battled major injuries in recent years. McCann underwent surgery to repair a torn shoulder labrum in December 2012, while Martin suffered a torn right hip labrum and a hairline fracture of the same hip in late 2010, a key reason that he was nontendered. Since then, he's undergone offseason surgery to repair the meniscus of his right knee, and this year he spent 26 days on the disabled list due to to a left hamstring strain.
Indeed, a key to Martin's contract will be whether he can stay healthy given how hard he's been worked during his career. Of the 13 catchers since 1947 with at least 1,100 games caught through their age-31 seasons — a list that includes both Martin, McCann and St. Louis standout Yadier Molina — Ivan Rodriguez is the only one to deliver more than 8.4 WAR over the remainder of his career, with the next four catchers (Bill Freehan, Jim Sundberg, Gary Carter and Jason Kendall) ranging from 6.3 to 8.4 WAR. Running Martin through a similar "what's he worth" exercise as I did earlier Monday for Giancarlo Stanton that factors inflation, a typical aging curve and the market cost of a win, if would take about 12.5 WAR over the life of this contract for it to be a break-even proposition.
Again, however, that doesn't factor in pitch framing, which tends not to regress with age the way offensive performance does. Martin has been worth 16.6 runs per 7,000 pitches, which is a typical catcher workload but a smaller one than he's taken in any of the last seven seasons. If one conservatively figures that he adds the equivalent of an extra 1.0 WAR per year, the contract will be much easier to justify. If he can help get the Blue Jays back to the playoffs at least once, the team will probably be content with this move.
While the year-by-year breakdown of Martin’s contract hasn’t been reported, a flat $16.4 million per year would increase the Jays’ commitments for 2015 to $118.8 million, covering just nine players. Team CEO/president Paul Beeston has said the club will increase payroll beyond this past year’s $137 million, but it remains to be seen whether it has the budget to retain free agent Cabrera while providing much-needed upgrades for the rotation, bullpen and either second or third base. The Jays did cut some cost by trading Adam Lind earlier this month, and they could look to move Navarro and pitcher J.A. Happ in order to gain more breathing room.
As for the Pirates, they’ve already moved to replace Martin by trading lefty reliever Justin Wilson to the Yankees for Francisco Cervelli, a 28-year-old career .278/.348/.381 hitter who has only once made more than 200 major league plate appearances in a season due to injuries and a PED suspension. Even in limited duty, Cervelli has shown himself to be an outstanding pitch framer; he was 9.9 runs above average in 2014 and is 15.0 above average per 7,000 pitches for his career.
In an irony that underscores the extent to which Pittsburgh and New York are on the same page, Cervelli is expected to team with light-hitting Chris Stewart, another excellent pitch-framer (+9.0 in 2014, +20.3 per 7,000 pitches) who handled the bulk of the Yankees’ catching duties in 2013 after Martin bolted for the Bucs via a two-year, $17 million deal. As compensation for losing Martin, the Pirates will get a supplementary pick between the first and second rounds in next June’s draft, while the Blue Jays will surrender the 18th pick for signing a qualified free agent.
Losing Martin is a blow for Pittsburgh, which simply couldn’t justify the risk of signing him at a competitive price. This is also a risky deal for the typically conservative Blue Jays, but the payoff -- finally returning to the postseason -- is a potentially huge one.