Martinez's impact on Red Sox entirely in the hands of Francona

Publish date:

Amid a flurry of smaller deals, the Red Sox landed one of the trading deadline's big fish on Friday, sending right-hander Justin Masterson and minor league pitchers Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price to the Indians for switch-hitting All-Star catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez. In terms of the raw talent exchange, this is a great swap for Boston. None of the three pitchers they gave up were among the elite prospects in their organization, while Martinez is one of the elite hitting catchers in the majors, ranking third in VORP among catchers, behind only Joe Mauer and Brian McCann. As an upgrade on what they already had, however, the deal may not actually make the Red Sox all that much better over the remainder of the season, though it does make them less vulnerable.

The difference between Martinez's 22.4 runs above replacement and Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek's 13.8 is worth roughly a half a win over the remainder of the season, but a closer look at their seasons reveals that Martinez did most of his hitting in April and May and has hit just .211/.303/.378 since June 1 to Varitek's .238/.366/.389 over the same span. Martinez could very easily rebound down the stretch; his .313/.361/.552 line at Fenway Park is well above his career rates despite the fact that it was compiled against the often excellent Red Sox pitching. As of right now, however, he doesn't represent a meaningful improvement over Varitek behind the plate.

Martinez has split his time between catching and first base this season, but the Red Sox already have the latter position manned by their top hitter, Kevin Youkilis. Youkilis, too, has slowed since June 1, but not nearly as much as Martinez. In fact, Youkilis's line since June 1 (.243/.345/.459) isn't that far behind Martinez's season line (.284/.368/.464), which very nearly matches Martinez's career rates, the latter two of which are no better than league average for a first baseman (.272/.353/.488).

Youkilis could slide over to third base, where he's already started 28 games this season and 150 in his major league career, but Mike Lowell has been one of the Red Sox's hottest hitters since coming off the disabled list two weeks ago, hitting .406/.447/.625 in that span. Martinez or Lowell, who is having a rough season in the field due to the hip injury which prompted offseason surgery, are good candidates to DH, but David Ortiz has that spot locked down, having pulled out of his early-season doldrums by hitting .275/.352/.575 with 13 homers since June 1.

Further complicating matters, the Red Sox followed the Martinez trade by getting rid of newly acquired back-up first baseman Adam LaRoche only to get another left-handed first baseman, Casey Kotchman, in return. I can't imagine the slick-fielding Kotchman will have much of a role beyond being a late-game defensive replacement.

Given this puzzle of corner infielders, the impact of the Martinez acquisition on the fortunes of the Boston Red Sox is entirely in the hands of manager Terry Francona. It will be up to Francona to juggle these pieces, using Martinez behind the plate when resting the 37-year-old Varitek (can Martinez catch a knuckleball?), Youkilis at third and Martinez at first when resting the 35-year-old Lowell's achy hip, and ... who knows? The right-handed Lowell and switch-hitting Varitek are both much stronger against left-handed pitching, which could mean Martinez, a switch-hitter who is stronger from the left side, will start in place of one of them every time a righty is on the mound. But Francona could also play matchups, taking into account past performance against that day's opposing starter or each hitter's strengths against that pitcher's repertoire. It could be that Youkilis and Ortiz, the latter recently restored to the cleanup spot, are the only two of the five likely to be in the lineup every day.

So rather than fill a hole, Martinez gives the Red Sox depth. An injury or collapse suffered by Youkilis, Ortiz, Lowell or Varitek won't sting much with Martinez around. Otherwise, Francona will have at least one of the five on the bench available for pinch-hitting duties. Meanwhile, acquiring Martinez kept him away from the division-rival Rays, who have a giant hole behind the plate and would have benefitted from the addition of Martinez more than any other team in the majors. With the Rays just 4 1/2 games behind the Sox in the Wild Card race, that's addition by diversion.

Beyond this year, the Red Sox also now have the inside track on extending Martinez. After trading Cliff Lee, the Indians didn't appear likely to pick up Martinez's $ 7.5 million option for next year. Now the Red Sox can pick up that option, replacing the 37-year-old Varitek (who has a $3 million player option for 2010 the Sox could easily buy out) with the 30-year-old Martinez, a coup equal to flipping a pouting 36-year-old Manny Ramirez for equal production from a 29-year-old Jason Bay last year. That gives Boston all of next year to work out an extension which would keep Martinez off the free agent market and away from the surely interested Rays and Yankees. And if the Red Sox can't sign him, they'd still get the compensatory draft picks, which could easily replace the pitchers they gave up in the deal, particularly given the wealth of pitching prospects already in the Red Sox's system.

Taking a quick look at those pitchers, Masterson was well-established in the Boston bullpen and survived a correction in his opponents' batting average on balls in play this year by reducing his walks and increasing his strikeouts for a fine 2.68 K/BB. A minor league starter, he has turned in solid spot-work in the big-league rotation, and will slot right into the Indians' rotation. A righty with a low three-quarter delivery, he's murder on right-handed hitters, and though he's unlikely to be more than a mid-rotation starter, he's already there at age 24.

The two minor league starters were the Red Sox's free-agent-compensation picks from 2007 and 2008 for the departures of Alex Gonzalez and Eric Gagne, respectively. Hagadone is a big lefty who throws in the mid-90s, or at least did before Tommy John surgery in April 2008. Now 23, he's been rehabbing in the South Atlantic League since the beginning of June and hasn't thrown more than three innings in a game this season. His results have been solid, save for a bit of wildness, but he'll be a 24-year-old in A ball next year and heads to Cleveland as something of an unknown quantity.

Price, a 22-year-old right-hander, was drafted out of Rice last year where he pitched primarily in relief. Converted to starting, he was pitching well beside Hagadone in the South Atlantic League, but has been hit hard since a late-May promotion to High-A. Though the Indians said they only wanted starting pitchers in this deal, I wouldn't be surprised to see Price move back to the bullpen before he reaches the majors.

Still, given that the last two months of Martinez's contract were worth no more than a pair of draft picks to Cleveland, the Indians have done well to get three compelling pitchers, one an established major leaguer, while sloughing off the remainder of Martinez's 2009 salary. It's not a great return, but it's an appropriate one. Call this one a win-win, and start queuing up for your playoff tickets in Boston.

VERDUCCI:Red Sox put organizational depth on display