Russell Martin, Bucs could part ways

Catchers take a physical beating for eight months a year, so it would have been understandable for Pittsburgh's Russell Martin to commandeer a clubhouse sofa and monitor Ray Rice updates on TV before a game against the Phillies this week. Instead, Martin slipped on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, headed for the Citizens Bank Park outfield and summoned his inner Ronaldinho.

While many of his fellow Pirates were in the trainer's room receiving treatment or in the clubhouse checking their tablets, Martin dragged a makeshift soccer net behind second base and worked up a sweat dribbling and kicking balls with teammate Charlie Morton. That's standard operating procedure for Martin, a born super-jock who enjoys ice hockey and yoga and likes to entertain his fellow Pirates with his ability to walk on his hands.

"Did you hear about that?" Pittsburgh pitcher Vance Worley asked. "It's unbelievable. He can walk on his hands better than most people walk on their feet."

"He could be in Cirque du Soleil," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.

Judging from the way Martin's teammates and coaches gush over him, he also has a gift for walking on water.

The Pirates have relied on some exceptional performances in their push for a second straight playoff berth. Franchise pillar Andrew McCutchen and everyman Josh Harrison -- a maligned All-Star who has taken his game to a higher level since the break -- are competing for the batting title, and Neil Walker is second to Robinson Cano among second basemen with a .457 slugging percentage. Pitching coach Ray Searage and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas are working the usual wonders with the staff, and the defense is seventh among big league teams with 32 runs saved.

But no player on the roster has a bigger stealth impact than Martin, who, at age 31, is enjoying one of his best career seasons.

Although he missed nearly a month with a hamstring injury, among big-league catchers, Martin ranks second to Milwaukee's Jonathan Lucroy with 4.9 WAR. He has an on-base percentage of .409, and he's hitting .368 with a .974 OPS with runners in scoring position.

Martin's impact as a staff handler, pitch framer, ball blocker and scouting report-implementer is evident beyond the raves from Pittsburgh's pitchers and coaches. The Pirates have a 3.49 team ERA with Martin behind the plate, compared to a 3.81 mark with their other catchers. Martin also has thrown out 25 of 77 base stealers this season for a success rate of 35 percent. He's snagged Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton three times.

"He's impacted this club as much as any player we have," Hurdle said. "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 continued. "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 Martin-Pittsburgh union has all the makings of a feel-good story, except that it might be coming to an end very soon.

Free agency beckons

When the Pirates signed Martin to a two-year, $17 million contract two years ago, it smacked of an overpay by a small-market team that had to stretch to fill a positional void. After Martin hit .211 with 21 homers in 2012, the Yankees didn't even extend him an offer to stay.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington and Martin's agent, Matt Colleran, declined to comment on contract extension talks (or lack thereof), but the absence of any tangible progress makes it a foregone conclusion that Martin will test free agency. He's 83 percent of the way into a 162-game season, so there's little downside for him to wait and see how the market unfolds. The Rangers, Rockies, Tigers, Dodgers, White Sox and Cubs are among the teams that might be dabbling in the catching market this winter.

"It's going to be the postseason or the offseason coming up shortly, so I feel like it would be unintelligent at this point to not be patient and see what's out there," Martin said. "I love the guys on this team, and I love what we have going on here. I love the direction this team is heading in, but who knows?

"If there would have been something done in spring training, it would have been a different story. So far I'm having a solid offensive and defensive year, and people are starting to recognize the defensive attributes of catchers more. It will be fun to see how important that is and how much people value that."

Martin's uncertain contract status leaves the Pirates in a precarious position. Although Chris Stewart is a capable backup, he's best suited for starting 40 to 50 games a year. Former No. 1 pick Tony Sanchez has yet to prove he's the answer, and Elias Diaz, who played with Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis this year, is a good defender whose bat has taken a while to progress. Reese McGuire, Pittsburgh's top draft pick in 2013, spent this year with West Virginia in the Class A South Atlantic League.

The free-agent market is even bleaker. Now that Kurt Suzuki has re-signed with Minnesota, the non-Martin alternatives consist of John Buck, Ryan Doumit, Gerald Laird, Wil Nieves, Ronny Paulino, A.J. Pierzynski, David Ross and Geovany Soto.

Any team weighing a run at Martin will have to factor in potential concerns about catchers and how they age and hold up under cumulative career workloads. Martin turns 32 in February and is approaching 1,100 career starts behind the plate, so it's natural for clubs to be wary of committing to anything too lengthy.

How do catchers in Martin's age group fare? When ESPN.com stat whiz Mark Simon culled through some catching numbers from 2009 to 2013, he found that a total of 23 catchers age 32 or older had appeared in 100 or more games in a season (with at least 60 percent of those games coming behind the plate).

Only four of those 23 catchers amassed a WAR of 2.0 or better. The list includes A.J. Ellis, Pierzynski and Carlos Ruiz, who achieved the feat twice.

While Martin can't expect to receive anything near the mega-deals signed by Joe Mauer ($184 million), Buster Posey ($167 million), Brian McCann ($85 million) or Yadier Molina ($75 million), there are some comparables worth citing. Arizona signed Miguel Montero to a five-year, $60 million extension as he was closing in on age 29, and Ruiz received a three-year, $26 million contract from the Phillies on the open market just before he turned 35.

Martin's résumé and age might qualify him for something in the middle. As the clock ticks on his tenure in Pittsburgh, Huntington still projects an air of hope the two sides can get something resolved.

"We'll do everything we can do to try and keep him," Huntington said. "We recognize Russ' impact on and off the field and the value he brings to the organization. It's the nature of free agency that just about every team loses players it wants to keep. Time will tell how the process plays out."

Player-team breakups do not take place in a publicity vacuum, and if Martin leaves Pittsburgh, it will be natural to wonder if the Pirates acted too passively in trying to broker an extension. They're braced for a backlash if Martin departs.

"Russ has put us in a position where we got crushed when we brought him in," Huntington said. "And if we let him go out the door, we're gonna get crushed again."

Nutrition buff

Martin is going to great lengths to ensure his next employer -- Pittsburgh or whoever -- gets maximum value for its investment. With input from his girlfriend, he has embraced a holistic diet and significantly curtailed his gluten intake. He eats fruits, vegetables and lean meats in abundance and strays from the routine only once a week with a "cheat meal" every Friday night.

"When you combine yoga and pilates and you eat well, you're stacking all the chips on your side," Martin said. "I'm a little wiser and more experienced at understanding my body, and I've been really disciplined this season. I'm proud of myself, and I want to keep being proud of myself, so I feel I'm going to keep doing this. Hopefully, it will add some quality years to my career."

Martin's natural athleticism helps, and he's shown the willingness and ability to adapt and address the flaws in his game. After a so-so 2013 season, he resolved to take a better two-strike approach, and the effort paid dividends. Martin is hitting .219 with two strikes this year, compared to .129 a year ago, in large part because he's doing a better job of trusting his hands and hitting the ball where it's pitched.

Martin's commitment to Pittburgh's staff is evident in his pre-game work and attention to scouting reports. From Francisco Liriano and Morton to Edinson Volquez and Worley, the Pirates love their turnaround specials. A dedicated and instinctive catcher plays a major role in the organization's approach to pitching.

"The game is constantly flowing with him," Worley said of Martin. "He'll set up early. He'll set up late. He'll deke one thing to get the batter thinking, and then he'll jump around and he's in another spot. His ability to read hitters and know situations makes everything easier for the pitching staff. We don't have to think. It's grab the ball and go."

The next three weeks will determine if Martin's job search will begin in early October or later. For now, talk about employment opportunities and a future in the Cirque de Soleil can wait. He does some of his best work from a crouch.