Russell Martin: He’s no Scott Servais, but he’ll do

Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin is undoubtedly the best catcher on the free agent market, and a match for the Cubs. However, foregone conclusions are for suckers.  AP Photo -- Charles Rex Arbogast

Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin is undoubtedly the best catcher on the free agent market, and a match for the Cubs. However, foregone conclusions are for suckers. AP Photo — Charles Rex Arbogast

31 years old and originally from Ontario, Canada, Russell Martin is a free agent at a very good time in his professional baseball career. Besides the fact that Martin is in a free agent class with fellow backstops J.P. Arencibia, John Buck, Ryan Doumit, Nick Hundley, Gerald Laird, Wil Nieves, AJ Pierzynski, David Ross, and Geo Soto–none of whom is really worthy of a starting job anywhere–Martin’s 2014 season was arguably the best of his career.

Stats, and the match.

Offensively, Martin finished with a triple slash of .292/.402/.430 and career-high wRC+ of 140. He also finished with a career-high fWAR of 5.3 and wOBAof .370, both good for third among Major League catchers in 2014 with at least 400 plate appearances. His isolated power (ISO) dropped for the third straight season to .140, but he did manage to rack up a solid 31 extra-base hits in 460 plate appearances while improving his walk rate for the fourth straight season to 12.8%. To round things out, Martin finished 19.4 offensive runs above average, good for fourth at his position.

Martin was very good behind the plate in 2014 as well, helping guide a Pirates pitching staff to much success (3.31 catcher’s earned run average, or “CERA”) and the team, a second consecutive postseason berth. Always above average in the run game, Martin threw out 39% of attempted base-stealers in ’14, just a tick off the 40% mark he put up in ’13. He was 14.9 defensive runs above average in ’14, fourth among catchers with 400 PAs, and right behind the 15.3 runs of the Chicago Cubs’ Welington Castillo. In addition, Martin finished second in stolen base runs (rSB) with 6 (again, just behind Castillo), sixth in good fielding play runs (rGFP) with 3, sixth in calculated passed pitches (CPP) with 57, and first in defensive runs saved (DRS) with 12.

Although there are a number of teams who would enjoy Martin’s services, most namely the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox, it appears that Martin and the Cubs would be the best fit. The obvious parallel between the Pirates and Cubs is that Martin played with young guys on the Bucs, a number of whom had progressed through the Pirates’ farm system since they were drafted. With the Cubs, Martin would be playing alongside young, fellow “core” guys who have been Cub lifers. As he was counted on to provide stability and leadership in a young Pirates clubhouse, he will likely be counted on to do the same in Chicago, even with the addition of new manager Joe Maddon and leadership of GM Jed Hoyer and club president, Theo Epstein. It appears the Cubs have already met with Martin and it’s easy to assume that Martin came away impressed with the club’s presentation.

The Incumbent.

Another part of this equation is the current Cubs’ “starting” catcher, Welington Castillo. At 27, it was thought not very

Cubs catcher Welington Castillo had a relatively fine 2013, but his subpar 2014 could have the Cubs looking at other backstop options.

Cubs catcher Welington Castillo had a relatively fine 2013, but his subpar 2014 could have the Cubs looking at other backstop options.

long ago that Castillo would be the Cubs’ catcher of the future. Likely, these things were thought immediately after a 2013 season in which Castillo posted a wRC+ of 107, DRS of 19, and fWAR of 3.3 in 113 games for a very, very bad Cubs team. 2014 came, and Castillo’s production dropped off quite considerably. His wRC+ dropped to 91, DRS to 5, and fWAR to 2.2 as the Cubs began taking their final steps towards baseball respectability.

It’s quite possible Castillo could still be the catcher of the future. Defensively, according to Fangraphs, he is still one of the league’s better catchers, and Martin isn’t far ahead of him in that area, even when going by advanced metrics. In addition, Castillo is just a year removed from also showing some of the offensive ability needed to be a productive, everyday catcher, and I can’t believe that has been lost, despite a 2014 for Castillo that simply was not very good.

Trend. Blip. Trend. Blip. Tr…

Martin’s offensive production should come with some red flags. Yes, a .402 OBP is very, very, very pretty, but Martin hadn’t posted an OBP above .347 since 2009, when he triple slashed .252/.352/.329 for the Doddgers. His OBP numbers in between 2009 and 2014, you don’t ask? .347, .324, .311, and .327. Those are actually respectably numbers for a regular catcher, but the Cubs wouldn’t be paying for that production. They would be paying more for his 2014 production, through at least 2016, I assume. Managing to hit .290 while being a regular catcher is difficult, but it’s somewhat aided by having a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .336, Martin’s highest mark since 2008. Once a strength, Martin is no longer a threat to steal bases the way he was early in his career, when he stole 60 bases in his first 4 seasons. Although you don’t exactly need your catcher to steal bases, I believe his decrease in production in that area is also a sign that he’s lost some of the athleticism that made him one of the league’s better all-around catchers. And while Martin isn’t exactly “old,” he has caught over 9,500 regular season innings to date and has caught in at least 107 games in every year except 2010. The first name that comes to my mind when thinking about Martin in free agency is 30 year-old New York Yankees catcher Brian McCann, who has also caught over 9,500 regular season innings. McCann just endured arguably the worst offensive season of his career after signing with the Yankees as a free agent last offseason, hitting 23 homers in ’14, but failing to post an OPS above .700 and, according to Fangraphs, coming in at 7.5 offensive runs below average. I’m not saying Martin will falter in the exact same way that McCann did, but the term “wear and tear” is associated with catchers for a very good reason.

The kids? Well…

The Cubs have depth on the farm when it comes to position players, but you’d have to venture far down the organizational rankings before finding a full-time catcher, and 27 year-old Rafael Lopez, while the closest to the majors, does not exactly inspire hope. 2014 first-round draft pick Kyle Schwarber caught in 20 of the 72 games he played in his first professional season, but he does not project as an everyday catcher, especially if the Cubs would rather have him on the ML club sooner than later. 21 year-old switch-hitting Victor Caratini came to the Cubs on July 31 in exchange for Emilio Bonifacio, James Russell, and cash, but is at least 2-3 years away from knocking on the Major League door. Also a third baseman, it appears the Cubs would rather Caratini focus on his work behind the plate, as he didn’t make one appearance at the hot corner in his 14 games with the Cubs’ Class A affiliate.

What are the Cubs to do?

Martin will likely seek at least a four-year contract, wherever he plays. Four years and $64 million seems fair, but he’ll probably wind up getting $80 million over five. The price is right, but the length is a tad long, if I’m Hoyer. However, Martin may very well be a better catcher than Castillo over the next two years and by then, it may be easier to move Martin to second base or the outfield to give him a break during the week (and from all of those terribly draining day games at Wrigley), while also allowing for someone in the Cubs’ system (Schwarber? Caratini? Boise Hawks’ catcher and 21 year-old left-handed hitting Justin Marra?) to begin making the transition to everyday Cubs’ catcher. As I noted above, foregone conclusions are for suckers, but the pieces (Martin, Cubs, money) definitely appear to fit. That’s got to mean something, right?