Does The Next Russell Martin Exist?


Pirates Russell Martin heads back to homeplate after talking with his starter.

Russell Martin is a valuable member of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  When he was signed away from the New York Yankees it was an example of the Bucs brass knowing exactly what they wanted. And aggressively writing a check to be certain they got it.    A check for $17 million dollars for two years of his service.

During spring training that year, Yankees GM Brian Cashman had offered a $20 million, three-year deal.  But Martin told him no thanks and when an offseason offer wasn’t made, the Bucs had their catcher.  At the time, Martin was thought to be the stop gap until first round pick Tony Sanchez would take over in 2015.

The signing caught many off guard.  At the time, little value was placed on pitch framing and defensive metrics.  A couple years since, and all that has changed.  In an all-time understatement, Neal Huntington said this about the Pirates stud back stop after he penned the two-year contract.

"“There is a lot to like about Russell.”"

Martin has outplayed the contract and now will be a free agent at the conclusion of the season.  The production has been well above what most expected, including obviously Neal Huntington.  But when looking ahead, the decision to re-sign Martin will be based on the fact that he can continue his production?  Most would argue that it will.  

But I don’t know that for a fact.  Martin is 31-and-a-half years old.  Fractures, contussions, MCL, torn labrum and multiple neck, thumb and thigh contussions litter his injury history.

Russell Martin injury history.

The Canadian has crouched behind home plate for 1126 games.  One thing that stands out, is the fact that after a brutal season with the Yankees in which he caught all kinds of games, he has come to Pittsburgh and been dynamic.  An assassian to opposing base stealing threats.  The 5’10” Martin is trending toward a 4.4 WARP this season.  Sick stuff and Pirates fans are enjoying every minute of it.

But before we go down the path of the reasons why Martin needs to be, as some put it, top priority for the Pirates, let’s take a look around and see if we can find the next Russell Martin on the free agent market.  The players we wrote about below have expiring contracts or should have the six years of service which would allow them to hit the open market after the year.  Two players that have current contracs that include a 2015 option are Nick Hundley and Jeff Mathis.

Jogging Ronny Paulino, John Buck and Ryan Doumit will be free agents in 2015.  But do we really need to go much further on these former Buccos?

Nick Hundley is not considered an elite defender.  As of this post, Hundley was ranked 27th on the Baseball Prospectus advanced catching matrix which is one spot behind Tony Sanchez.  The real answer as the Pirates starting catcher in 2015 just might the man known as @Tony26Montana on Twitter.

Hundley is serving as backup to rookie catching sensation-if-you-will Caleb Joseph.  So, yes, a rookie/unproven catcher can still allow a small market team to win.  It’s hard to argue that point when watching Joseph who has been very productive of late with his bat as the O’s soar in the American League.  Hundley, who will turn 31 in a month, reached his peak in his age 27 season with the Padres when he posted a 3.3 WAR.

Gerald Laird is in the very bottom of the league in defensive catching ability.  The soon-to-be-35 year old simply wouldn’t make sense for the Bucs.

Jeff Mathis currently ranks 18th on the advanced metric chart and last season was ranked 11th.  But the 30 year old has played only 49 games, sucks with the bat, and his defense helps him to at least be replacement level. Mathis isn’t an ideal answer, but might be one of the better free agents to hit the market.

Wil Nieves is a middle of the pack defender.  The Phillies back stop has been a tick above replacement level despite playing only 20 some games in 2014.

A.J. Pierzynski is nearly 38 years old.  The Cardinals are using him as their catcher and he’s been all right thus far after just 11 games.  He caught 72 games last season with the Boston Red Sox.

Geovany Soto has caught five games this season.  Soto’s best season was back in 2007.  Soto is a bit older than Martin

David Ross catches a great game and is consistently on the advanced metrics charts.  Ross will be a free agent at the end of the 20€™14 season after completing his two-year, $6.2 million deal with the Red Sox.

According to Ross, there have been no talks with the team regarding a possible extension.  It would seem Ross would be an option as a backup, but after an injury riddled last two years, this seems a risk that the Pirates would be unwilling to take.

Aug 11, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin (55) tags out Detroit Tigers left fielder Rajai Davis (20) at home plate to end the eighth inning in an interleague game at PNC Park. The Pirates won 11-6. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

So there it is.  The next Russell Martin certainly doesn’t appear to be on the market this off season.   Martin will be the elite catching option available and there are numerous teams, many in big markets that could use Martin.  And those teams, just like the Pirates two years ago, will aggressively pursue the Bucs backstop.    The Pirates made an excellent move in selecting Martin as the catcher of the right now.

It’s the catcher of the future that concerns us.  But that’s a story for a different day.    The Pirates depth–a player that could step in and takeover for Martin either right now, or in the near future consists of Tony Sanchez.  When Martin went down with a hamstring injury for the first time in his career, Sanchez was the man.  The bat played, the arm didn’t.

Combine that with ‘The Next Russell Martin” doesn’t exist in free agency and the decision seems simple, yet oh, so complicated for a penny pinching Pirates team.  Pirates President Frank Coonelly said signing Martin would be a priority and called him extraordinarily important to the Pirates.   I guess the big question is do you believe him?

If you believe the reports that Martin will walk, and the Pirates won’t pay market value for him, I guess the next post needs to be possible catching trade targets.