Analysis: Pittsburgh Pirates Sign Catcher Russell Martin to Two-Year Deal

Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

The Pittsburgh Pirates have signed former New York Yankees catcher Russell Martin to a two-year, $17 million deal.

The Pirates’ interest in the 29-year-old became public over the last few days as the team attempted to find an upgrade over its 2012 duo of Rod Barajas, who is a free agent apparently won’t be returning to the team, and Michael McKenry behind the plate. 

Tony Sanchez, the team’s first round pick in the 2009 MLB Draft, looks to be stuck in AAA for at least another year.

At least he’s taking the move well:

While Martin is (was) a big name and is (was) probably the best available catcher in a ridiculously poor crop of free agents, I’m not sure he’ll be worth the price the team paid to bring him in when compared with what they would have paid Barajas.

Let’s take a look.

First, we’ll compare each player’s 2012 offensive numbers:

Barajas: .206/.283/.343, 11 home runs, 69 strikeouts and 29 walks in 361 plate appearances.

Martin: .211/.311/.403, 21 home runs, 95 strikeouts and 53 walks in 485 plate appearances.

Expanding Barajas’ numbers to match Martin’s number of plate appearances gives Barajas 15 home runs, 92 strikeouts and 39 walks.

Those are two pretty similar seasons. Martin seems to have more power which leads to the better slugging percentage. He wasn’t intentionally walked at all last season so the extra walks indicate a better eye. Neither player’s walk numbers dramatically dropped or rose last season, so that indication holds true.

What those numbers don’t factor in, though, is each player’s home park factor.

Martin hit 13 (62%) of his home runs at Yankee Stadium last season, one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in America.  Barajas hit a total of three home runs in the right-handed-power-sapping PNC Park. His other eight came on the road.

Uh oh.

Martin also bats right-handed.

Uh oh.

At least Martin threw out 24% of base runners last season, so he has to be an upgrade over Barajas defensively, right?

The Pirates were heavily criticized in 2012 for the organization-wide lack of catching stealing base runners. The team ranked dead last in defensive caught stealing percentage in 2012 and that trend could be recognized all the way through the team’s low-A affiliate in West Virginia.

It’s not that the Pirates have drafted and signed a bunch of catchers with poor arms. It’s that the organization doesn’t emphasize pitchers holding runners on.

The proof is in Barajas’ career caught stealing numbers.

From 2002-2009 Barajas threw out 32.7% of base runners, a fantastic number. Only once during that span did he throw out less than 33% of potential base stealers. In 2010 that number dropped to 15% as he moved between the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers, but it was back up to 25% in 2011 with LA.

And suddenly he throws out a measly of six percent of base stealers in 2012?  Sure, he turned 37 in September and to say age doesn’t affect a player’s arm would be blasphemous, but that? That much? That quickly? I don’t buy it.

Martin threw out 24% of would-be base stealers last season, the lowest mark of his career. It was 30% in 2011 and 39% in 2010. Most would say he’s a solid defensive catcher.

But they would have said that about Barajas prior to 2012 as well.

Martin’s deal with the Pirates will pay him $8.5 million/year. The team declined Barajas’ $3.5 million option this offseason.

Overall, I expect we’ll see Martin post similar numbers to Barajas’ 2012 campaign this season with maybe three or four more home runs and a caught stealing rate around 15-20%.

Will he be an upgrade over Barajas? Probably. But the bigger question is whether or not a cash-strapped team can afford to dump this kind of money into a slight upgrade at catcher when there are so many other holes it needs to fill to even be considered a competitive team, much less a playoff team.

I would much rather see the team move forward with McKenry and Sanchez behind the plate and bring in an impact pitcher with Martin’s $17 million.

I won’t come right out and say the Pirates just wasted a barrel of cash on an average player who will slightly upgrade one position, but… the Pirates probably just wasted a barrel of cash on an average player who will slightly upgrade one position.

And if this move has any affect on the team tendering an offer to Jeff Karstens or moving Joel Hanrahan, there will be some mighty unhappy baseball fans in Pittsburgh.

And I’ll be one of them.

Follow Troy on Twitter @TroyPfaff for more Pittsburgh Pirates content

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