Victor Martinez is one of the best hitting catchers in major league history. Yet it remains to be seen whether the Red Sox — or anyone else — will pay him like one.
That issue has assumed heightened importance in recent days. A report that emerged on Monday that Joe Mauer and the Twins were close to signing a 10-year deal now appears premature. Even so, while several subsequent reports have suggested that no deal is at hand, there still appears to be a consensus that a deal between the Minnesota native and his hometown team is likely.
Mauer would be eligible for free agency after the 2010 season. If the reigning American League MVP chooses not to make himself the subject of a massive bidding war between the Sox, Yankees and any number of other clubs, that has significant implications for the Red Sox and Martinez.
With Mauer out of the mix, Martinez’ career suggests that he is the obvious standout in next winter’s free agent catching class that otherwise features a group with significant offensive limitations. Indeed, after his first six full seasons in the majors, the 31-year-old could be one of the top offensive catchers to reach free agency in the last 20 years.
MARTINEZ IN CATCHING CONTEXT
Once he came to the Red Sox from the Indians at last year's trade deadline, Martinez immediately became a difference-making bat. The switch-hitter hit .336 with a .405 OBP, .507 slugging mark, .912 OPS and 41 RBI in 56 games. He was a force hitting in the third spot in the lineup, something that continued a career-long trend.
Since 1901, there have been 117 catchers (defined as players who spent at least half of their games squatting behind the plate) with at least 2,500 plate appearances through their age 30 seasons. Among those, Martinez ranks 10th with an .837 OPS.
Of the nine players in front of him, five are Hall of Famers (Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Gabby Hartnett, Carlton Fisk, Yogi Berra) and two (Mauer and Mike Piazza; three if Joe Torre is included) have a good shot at following suit.
Part of that ranking reflects the offensive era in which Martinez plays. Even so, measured by OPS+ (which measures a catcher’s OPS against league average), the three-time All-Star still holds up well. Martinez has a 121 OPS+ (meaning that he his OPS has been 21 percent higher than league average in his career), which ranks 17th all-time among catchers through their age 30 seasons.
Of the 16 players in front of him, nine are in the Hall of Fame, and two more (Mauer and Piazza, three if Torre is included) seem likely to end up there.
SO WHAT’S THAT WORTH?
Assuming that he doesn’t sign an extension with the Sox, Martinez will reach free agency after the 2010 season with a history of offensive production and at an age that is rare for catchers.
The last catcher to reach the open market who was younger and a better hitter than Martinez was Mike Piazza. The mulleted one, armed with a ridiculous 160 career OPS+ after his age 29 season, received a seven-year, $91 million deal from the Mets.
Piazza may have been the best hitting catcher in major league history, however. Martinez will not be able to use him as a comp.
Mauer’s expected deal with the Twins, meanwhile, will likely be viewed as a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, just as Mauer is a one-of-a-kind player. Mauer, after all, led the American League in hitting (and now has three batting titles — or one more than all other catchers had won in modern baseball history), OBP, slugging and OPS in 2009. Moreover, Mauer has won two straight Gold Gloves. Again, he’s in a separate class from Martinez (or other humans).
There are a handful of contracts that provide a more likely basis of comparison should Martinez reach free agency as a catcher (the only other multi-year deals of at least $10 million a year for catchers in major league history):
Jorge Posada, Yankees: 4 years, $52.4 million ($13.1 million AAV)
Re-signed as a free agent for ages 36-39 (2008-11)
Career stat line when signed: .277/.381/.479/.860, 218 HR, 861 RBI, 124 OPS+
Jorge Posada, Yankees: 5 years, $51 million ($10.2 million AAV) plus club option
Signed before reaching free agency for ages 30-34 (2002-06)
Career stat line when signed: .268/.369/.465/.834, 85 HR, 326 RBI, 115 OPS+
Jason Varitek, Red Sox: 4 years, $40 million ($10 million AAV)
Re-signed as a free agent for ages 33-36 (2005-08)
Career stat line when signed: .271/.347/.451/.798, 97 HR, 418 RBI, 103 OPS+
Pudge Rodriguez, Tigers: 4 years, $40 million ($10 million AAV) plus club option
Signed as free agent for ages 32-35 (2004-07)
Career stat line when signed: .304/.344/.488/.832, 231 HR, 914 RBI, 113 OPS+
Jason Kendall, Pirates: 6 years, $60 million ($10 million AAV)
Signed before reaching free agency for ages 28-33 (2002-07)
Career stat line when signed: .314/.402/.456/.858, 45 HR, 265 RBI, 121 OPS+
(NOTE: Kendall’s career stat line is through the 2000 season; he signed the extension, which took effect in 2002, after the 2000 season, with one year left on a prior deal)
Posada’s current deal with the Yankees is regarded as something of an industry outlier. Most executives believe that New York overpaid following a career year for Posada (he reached career highs in average, OBP, slugging and OPS in 2007) to retain a key component of its club. Aside from that deal, the bar for elite catchers seems to be set at about $10 million a year for four or more years.
Given that Martinez will be 32 at the start of his next deal, he would seem to compare most directly to the four-year, $40 million deals signed by Varitek and Rodriguez. That seems about right in some respects, since he is considered a better hitter than were either of those two but probably a worse defender.
One executive suggested that a walk year can play a huge role in influencing the final shape of the deal, to the point where Martinez would seem in line — barring a huge decline in his performance — for a three- or four-year deal for anywhere from $8 million to $12 million a year: most likely something in the Varitek/Rodriguez range, but potentially greater if he has a Posada-like walk year.
Of course, such a deal would come with quite a bit of risk on the back end, given the studies that demonstrate fairly convincingly that the production of catchers typically plummets at age 35. The first two to three years of a deal for Martinez would likely yield solid offensive productivity, but the fourth year could represent a “cover your eyes and hope for the best” scenario.
Multiple evaluators noted that Martinez’ intelligence as a hitter might help him to somewhat resist the normal decline patterns of age. The same traits that allowed him to make adjustments at the end of the 2009 season — in a year when he set career highs in games played, he still hit .369 with a .949 OPS in September — could help Martinez as he ages.
Still, that Martinez might do so would represent a leap of faith that would run counter to the history of players at the position. But, in order to secure a catcher of Martinez’ caliber for the next few years, a team would likely be willing to risk the extra year as a necessary cost of doing business … presuming, of course, that the team viewed Martinez as a catcher going forward.
Yet that issue is not quite as simple as it may seem.
WHAT IS VICTOR MARTINEZ?
There are questions throughout the sport about how much longer Martinez has behind the plate. That issue, in turn, will play a huge role in determining the 31-year-old’s next contract.
Assessments of whether Martinez should be treated as a catcher or first baseman/DH in free agency run the gamut.
Some voices in the industry suggest that it is plainly apparent that his future is as a first baseman and designated hitter, and that he is on borrowed time behind the plate. Indeed, there are those who believe that he is already ill-suited for catching, and that when he becomes a free agent, he cannot be compared to backstops.
Others believe that — even though his bat will always be his calling card — Martinez can prove serviceable behind the plate in coming years.
More likely, the Sox will need this year to figure out which is true — something that helps to explain why, according to a baseball source, there hasn’t been a particular sense of urgency for the team to engage Martinez in discussions of a contract extension.
Before 2009, Martinez spent roughly 90 percent of his games crouching behind the plate. In 2009, however, he had a far more even distribution of games, playing catcher in 85 games (55 percent) and first base in 70 (45 percent).
Now, the Sox are entering 2010 with a stated plan of having Martinez serve primarily as an everyday catcher. But the undertaking is experimental. In all likelihood, the Sox need the benefit of a full year of evaluating Martinez to determine whether he can represent a solution behind the plate for the long term.
His ability as a hitter is not questioned, though there is some curiosity about how the grind of a full season behind the plate would affect him in the batter’s box. How he works with a pitching staff and controls a running game when subjected to the daily rigors of working behind the plate -- something he hasn't done over a full season since 2007 -- also represents an unknown.
If Martinez is solid behind the plate in 2010 while maintaining his offensive production, then he would likely be in line for the Varitek/Rodriguez/Posada contract. But, if teams conclude — as some executives already have — that he should be evaluated purely in the context of the market for first basemen and designated hitters, then Martinez becomes a completely different animal.
He has the bat to justify being an everyday first baseman and DH. Even so, when removed from behind the plate, his offense translates from elite (as a catcher) to merely good, with an expectation that his corresponding contract would likewise change.
The other “top” catchers who will be on the open market following the coming season include A.J. Pierzynski, Bengie Molina, Ramon Hernandez, Jason Varitek ... players who are beyond their primes and are reaching (or well beyond) the age when the production of catchers falls off a cliff. Against that group, Martinez is like a superhero whose smile glints blindingly in the sun.
Over the past 10 years, Martinez ranks fourth among catchers with an .837 career OPS (behind Mauer (.892), Posada (.878) and Mike Piazza (.872)). During the same decade-long stretch, however, he would rank 24th in the majors in OPS among first basemen/designated hitters, behind Nick Johnson (.849) and just ahead of Adam LaRoche (.834) – both of whom, it should be noted, will be free agents following the 2010 season.
In fact, Johnson (who this offseason signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Yankees with a mutual option for 2011) and LaRoche (who inked a one-year, $4.5 million contract with Arizona that includes a mutual option for 2011) are two of several solid free-agent options who could fill a 1B/DH description after this year.
Adam Dunn (.903 career OPS, 132 career OPS+), Derek Lee (.873, 124), Carlos Pena (.858, 126) and Paul Konerko (.843, 116) are among the other options who can deliver the sort of offensive production of which Martinez is capable as a first baseman/designated hitter. Given that competition, Martinez could be expected to see less in both years and dollars should there not be a market for his services as an everyday catcher.
All of that being the case, while Martinez has stated his interest in an extension to remain in Boston beyond this coming season, it would not come as a surprise to see the Sox take a deliberate approach to pursuing a new deal with him. As impressive as his Red Sox debut proved in 2009, there is much that is left for the team to learn about the three-time All-Star as he prepares for his first full year in Boston.