$17 million. It’s a lot of money, to average stiffs like you and I. However, in the MLB free agent world, $17 million dollars is peanuts, and on a two-year free agent deal, it should only be expected to provide a club with roughly 1.5 wins for each season (wins above replacement or WAR, represents the value produced by a player over a 162 game schedule beyond the MLB-replacement/bench player standard. The free agent market rates typically value players at $5.5M per WAR). It’s the kind of contract small-market clubs live and die with (usually, die), or win-now clubs (rightly) pursue to add the final pieces to a 90+ win team.
Thursday, the Pittsburgh Pirates added free agent catcher Russell Martin to that very contract. Shockingly, it represents the Pirates’ largest free-agent signing in club history (topping an illustrious four-year, $15M deal to Pat Meares). So, does this represent the latest (and biggest) signing by a Pirates club mired in mediocrity since the Bonds-Van Slyke era (circa 1992), or a smart pickup by a young, pitching-strong team?
I think Martin for two years at $17M is a smart pickup. It’s not the move that will put the club on even footing with division rivals Cincinnati Reds or St. Louis Cardinals, but it addresses two major areas of need, with an established, near-peak player on a short-term contract.
First off, the Pirates offense was down-right offensive in 2012. The Pirates’ offense produced a lowly .304 wOBA in 2012 – just eight points above the NL-worst Astros. Their batters produced a collective 20.5 WAR – low enough for sure, but if we take out superstar performer Andrew McCutchen, they produced just 13.1 WAR. Folks, we’re talking about a lineup barely credible for use in major league stadiums. Martin’s no top-tier offensive upgrade, but he’s a solid addition that’s consistently provided offensive value to his teams. Despite a lowly .222 BABIP, Martin produced 2.2 WAR for the 2012 Yankees. Bill James pegs Martin for some improvement in 2013, forecasting a .322 wOBA on the backs of his consistent power (averages 19 HRs the past two seasons) and patient plate approach (his BB% is higher than 10% in each of the past six seasons). He provides an offensive upgrade behind McCutchen, an absolute necessity to the Pirates.
Second, the Pirates’ 2012 catchers were horrendous. Primary catchers Rod Barajas provided his usual plate production, with a lowly .272 wOBA and -0.2 WAR. Folks, the Pirates would have been better off with the usual AAA-cast off behind the plate. Considering the incumbent, Martin’s offense upgrade at catcher is a large improvement. Defensively, Martin is leagues better than Barajas. As increasing baseball analytics is spent looking at catchers’ pitch framing abilities, Martin ranks amongst the tops. In Mike Fast’s groundbreaking pitch-frame study, Martin ranked #2 behind Jose Molina, advantageously framing pitches that resulted in saving his team(s) 71 runs over a five-year period. As the pitch-framing skillset is not considered one that ages with the player, there’s a lot of value that Martin can provide to an already promising Pirate pitching staff.
There are few bad two-year signings. $17M for a 2.2 WAR major-league catcher represents good value, especially considering that 2013/14 represents Martin’s age 29 and 30 seasons. For $17M, the Pirates acquire Martin’s top years in a short-term deal without longer-term payroll challenges.
Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington has developed a strong minor league system and a major league team that is a fringe contender. Martin’s signing, if combined with other moves to improve their offense, represents an acquisition that could challenge the Reds and Cardinals in the NL Central.