The Red Sox’ decision to hold the line and let Victor Martinez walk represented a choice of the kind of risk that the team wanted to assume.
Did the team prefer to take a financial risk with a veteran whose short-term production was a given but, over the life of his contract, was likely to decline? Or did the club want to take a risk on a young, unproven player who may never reach his potential but whose upside could significantly exceed his salary?
The Red Sox made their bet on youth. As of now, in a plan subject to change, the team is prepared to try to develop Jarrod Saltalamacchia into an everyday catcher.
In a vacuum, particularly when looking at the idea from the perspective of the 2011 season, the idea seems like it can only represent a competitive setback. To this point in his career, Martinez ranks as perhaps one of the top 20 offensive catchers in major league history. Saltalamacchia unquestionably has major upside thanks to huge power potential (there is a reason why he was viewed as the centerpiece in a trade for Mark Teixeira).
But the reality is, the Sox are trading a catcher with a career line of .300/.369/.469/.838, and who hit .302/.351/.493/.844 in 2010, for a player with a career line of .248/.315/.386/.701 and who totaled .167/.333/.292/.625 in 2010. Even on the assumption that Saltalamacchia will give the Sox better defense behind the plate, it is hard to envision the Sox enjoying the same kind of production next year that they had this year.
So, clearly, the decision was less about 2011 than it was about the broader perspective of the team’s competitive goals. That fact was acknowledged by manager Terry Francona during his session on the Dale & Holley show.
“We’re pretty much on the same page on a lot of things. Being the manager is a little bit different, making the lineup out is a little bit different than having to be the caretaker for the organization and looking at it four years down the road. I try not to lose sight of that,” Francona said. “Wanting to have Victor in the lineup next April is a no-brainer. When you have to make a decision and you’re talking $40 [million], $45 [million], $50 million, four years down the road, that’s not quite as easy. I respect that.
“[GM] Theo [Epstein] and his guys have to walk the fine line of protecting — we talk about loyalty, and we certainly believe in that — but not going too far and have guys maybe in the last couple years of their contracts not doing what you want.”
The Sox were willing to offer Martinez one of the most richest deals in baseball history for a catcher. They offered him three years and $36 million (a $12 million average annual value (AAV)) and a four-year deal for $42 million (a $10.5 million AAV). But in the end, neither of those could be viewed as terribly close to the winning bid made by the Tigers of four years and $50 million.
So, why did the Sox balk?
Multiple Red Sox sources indicated they felt that, even with the strides that Martinez made this year to perform at a respectable level, he is unlikely to remain a viable everyday catcher for more than two more seasons. After that, he would likely be consigned to duty as a designated hitter and first baseman. When that happens, his value will drop precipitously.
That might explain why the Sox initially approached Martinez with a two-year offer during the season. His current production as a catcher would justify one of the richest contracts ever for a backstop. And this past year, his OPS ranked fifth in the majors among catchers.
But even his current production as a DH/first baseman would have been far more modest. His .838 OPS would have ranked 18th among DH/first basemen, just ahead of Jack Cust (a likely non-tender candidate by the A’s) and just behind Vladimir Guerrero (whose $9 million option was declined by the Rangers).
There was, of course, a widespread realization that in light of the Rangers’ decision to decline Guerrero’s option, the Sox will be massively overpaying David Ortiz in 2011 after exercising his option. Yet Ortiz (.270/.370/.529/.899) was a far more productive hitter than Martinez in 2010; indeed, Ortiz had a higher OPS than Martinez has ever had in his career.
Moreover, if he does remain behind the plate, Martinez could face a steep offensive decline. Catchers do not gradually see their performance drop in their mid-30s. Instead, they see it get tied to a Looney Tunes-style anvil tossed into a canyon around the age of 35.
That being the case, the last year of Martinez’ deal stands a good chance of fair chance of being a poor investment. That helps to explain why the Red Sox would value the final year of Martinez’ deal at $6 million.
The Sox’ stated mission is to win multiple championships, and to position themselves to pursue that goal over the long haul rather than to focus on “going for it” in any one given year. That being the case, while the team wanted to retain Martinez, there were few signals of distress in the aftermath of his decision to head elsewhere (particularly given the potentially significant acquisition of the Tigers' draft pick, which could end up being as high as No. 19 overall).
Indeed, a year ago, one team source noted that, after seeing the team work so hard to develop young catching (with the likes of Mark Wagner, Luis Exposito, Tim Federowicz and now Ryan Lavarnway) in the system, at a certain point, it would be desirable to see the team commit to youth at the position.
Of course, the team instead opted to go outside the organization by making a trade for Saltalamacchia (in exchange for high-ceiling pitching prospect Roman Mendez as well as first baseman Chris McGuiness and catcher-turned-pitcher Michael Thomas). But whereas Martinez is a known quantity, Saltalamacchia represents a player who has room to grow into an above-average regular.
There are no sure things with the 25-year-old, but there is potential. And if the Red Sox are going to take a chance, they apparently would rather do so on an upside bet than on hoping that a 31-year-old star’s decline is gradual rather than pronounced.
“I think Theo said the other day, and I really believe it, at some point, you have to assume some risk somewhere. And I think we’re all comfortable that if this is one of the risks we assume, we like this kid,” Francona said. “He’s been the Rangers’ opening day catcher the last two years. That’s how much they thought of him. Switch-hitter with power.
“We view him potentially as someone who can really fit the bill as maybe even an everyday catcher for us. Now, saying that, I don’t know if you want to just — because of everything he’s been through — hand everything to him April 1 and say, ‘Go get 'em.’ Sometimes you’re helping to set someone up to fail. We don’t want that to happen. We want to help this kid progress because we really like him. We want to help him get there.”
For the future, going with Saltalamacchia — or, if he does not pan out, another catcher from the system — may well prove the right play, in the same way that the A’s reaped huge returns through well-timed trades of veteran pitchers such as Mark Mulder (who netted Dan Haren) and Haren (who netted Brett Anderson) and Tim Hudson (who netted Juan Cruz and Dan Meyer … um, never mind — just a reminder that there are risks with committing to youth).
Even so, a commitment to Saltalamacchia — whom the Sox hope to pair with a veteran mentor, with Jason Varitek seeming a fine candidate — does little to address the team’s plight in 2010.
That said, there is still time for the Sox to address the offense they lose with Martinez’ departure through other moves. First, it is worth remembering that the Sox’ goal is to field above-average production at every position in order to feature a deep, formidable lineup that ranks among the best in the AL.
In that context, the bar is set fairly low for the team’s catchers. The average AL catcher hit .245/.312/.374/.686 last year. Even if Saltalamacchia merely matches his career line, he would exceed that bar. (Disclaimer: That’s no sure bet, given that the 25-year-old’s OPS has declined in each of his four big league seasons.)
Meanwhile, there is still time for the team to address its area of greatest offensive deficiency from 2010 by acquiring an elite outfielder, whether a free agent like Jayson Werth or Carl Crawford or a trade candidate such as Justin Upton.
Is it a risky proposition for the Sox? Absolutely. But so was the idea of signing a catcher for his age 32-35 seasons.
In that sense, the decision bore striking parallels to another free agent departure five years earlier, when Johnny Damon took his talents to the Bronx. The Yankees signed Damon to a four-year, $52 million deal that left the Sox somewhat shellshocked, and without an obvious alternative.
Offensively, Damon was terrific for the Yankees, essentially maintaining the productivity he exhibited with the Sox. But defensively, he suffered a major decline, to the point where he played just 213 of his 576 games for the Yankees in center field. That, in turn, made him a much less valuable player.
The Sox won a championship without Damon in 2007. The Yankees won a championship with him in 2009. Ultimately, neither team regretted its decision.
Will Martinez end up representing a similar case study? That remains to be seen.
The Sox chose their risk, and they have bet on youth. Whether that decision was the right one will be known in about four years.