CHICAGO -- He’s become one of the hottest names in free agency though he’s technically not even available to 29 other teams just yet. Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin is expected to have many suitors if he leaves Pittsburgh, where he’ll undoubtedly turn down a $15.3 million qualifying offer to play for them next year. He could still sign a long-term deal with the Pirates, but the Chicago Cubs might have something to say about it, as could a host of other teams.
Martin, 31, is the prize among available catchers after producing an impressive slash line in 2014: .290/.402/.430/.832. That on-base percentage sticks out as the Cubs could use some walks from wherever they can get them in the lineup. He also ranked second in defensive WAR for the second consecutive year. The Cubs have a starting catcher in Welington Castillo but, he’s not progressing in the manner the club may have hoped. Though four years younger than Martin, Castillo's slash line in 2014 was decidedly less impressive: .237/.296/.389/.686.
And while Castillo led all catchers in defensive WAR in 2013 -- just ahead of Martin -- he dropped to 12th this past season. Additionally, Castillo isn’t known for some of the more nuanced parts of the game, including calling pitches, pitch framing and simply having the best feel for what’s needed at that position. At one time he looked like an up-and-comer, but he’ll be 28 in April and has yet to have any kind of a breakout to his career. He’s not bad -- he’s just not Joe Maddon-type of dynamic. Martin might have that quality, as Pirates pitchers swore by him last season. To be fair, Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks emerged last year mostly working with Castillo, but, simply put, Martin is a better player and brings more to the table.
Now, Martin’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was a career-high .336 in 2014 despite his line-drive percentage (21.4) being a tick below the league average. It means he could have had some decent luck in getting to that .290 batting average. It’s bound to come down, but that doesn’t matter much considering he brings a lot more to the table. A dynamic catcher can touch so many parts of a team, starting with leadership. The Cubs are looking for some of that, and Martin would check off a bunch of different boxes. He works with the pitchers, deals with the coaches and of course is right there with hitters as well. A great, veteran catcher who can lead is a luxury in baseball that any manager would want.
So can the Cubs land him? Should they?
Like most free agents, Martin will be overpaid. The back end of a long term deal -- say four to five years at $10 million to $15 million per season -- might not look pretty, but evidence shows catcher declines aren’t as steep as you might imagine. According to ESPN Stats and Information, from 1995 to 2014, among players who caught at least 50 percent of their playing time, there was only a .002 dropoff in OPS between catchers 29 and younger and those 30 and older. Numbers across the board fit in a similar manner. There were only slight decreases. Since most catchers aren’t putting up huge numbers anyway, the relative dropoff shouldn’t hurt a team that much.
The difference in a plus-30 catcher is in the amount of games played. The above numbers are averages, not totals. Playing time changes once a catcher hits his mid-30s. From 1995 to 2014, at age 30-31, a combined 87 catchers played in 100 games or more. At age 32-33, that number dropped to 62 playing in 100 or more games.
But in terms of playing 50 or more games -- and in many cases closer to 100 -- the numbers remain steady. In other words, as catchers age into their 30s, they’re less likely to play in 100 or more games but very likely to play in 50 or more.
So how does this all work into a signing of Martin?
The Cubs want to compete as soon as possible. That much we know. In fact, if things go right, they should have several waves of players who help them contend over the next decade. Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs' first-round pick in 2014, could be the catcher of the future but he’s not nearly ready on the defensive front. Why not compete with Martin in the meantime?
One key could entail keeping Castillo around as a backup. He’s familiar both with the coaching and pitching staff, and while he’s a run-of-the mill starter, he could be a great backup. And remember, Martin’s playing time is likely to decrease, which calls for a better-than-average backup catcher -- especially at Wrigley Field. If there is one position affected by the Cubs' day game/night game issues, it’s probably the backstop. A player wears down at that position anyway. Martin had a great year in 2014 but only played in 111 games. The evidence suggests his production might not suffer, but only if he’s kept fresh.
Castillo will get his playing time as the backup, and when Schwarber is ready the transition can begin. At that point, Castillo can be shipped out and maybe it’s Martin who becomes an expensive backup for the final year or two of his deal. Remember, the numbers show he could play in half the games and still be productive into his mid to late 30s. And what better teacher to have around for Schwarber than Martin?
Yeah, it can feel like wasted money if Martin isn’t performing at the end of his deal, but Schwarber will be making the minimum. It all evens out in the end, and as a clubhouse presence, a catcher can earn his paycheck there as much as anywhere.
Advocating crazy, huge deals for pitchers like Max Scherzer, or even Jon Lester, should be examined closely, but in this case, the perfect contract isn’t needed. The Cubs may overpay and Martin's numbers could dive -- plus they'll have to give up a second-round pick to sign him -- but the value Martin brings to the table is worth it. It won’t be a bad contract if he’s a good guy and helps the Cubs pitching staff and future backstop. And he might just help the Cubs back to the playoffs.