The Pirates have agreed to terms with Russell Martin on a two-year, $17 million deal.
When reports about the Pirates' interest in Martin came to light earlier this week, a lot of people weren't happy, and it's easy to see why. Martin will be 30 in February, and catchers tend not to age well. Also, there's plenty of evidence that he's already aging. He posted a .211 batting average last year, and while batting average isn't typically a statistic I look to first, it's a pretty good indicator of diminishing reactions or bat speed in older players. He'll probably get some dead-cat bounce on his batting average in 2012, particularly since his BABIP was an absurdly low .222, but he still probably isn't going to hit well for average. His main offensive asset is his power, which won't play particularly well as a right-handed hitter in PNC Park. What the Pirates will be looking for here is for Martin to hold onto what he's got for dear life, because if he loses his grip -- and that's certainly possible -- it won't be pretty.
The Pirates needed a catcher, and this isn't the most inspired move they could have made. Some sort of outside-the-box trade or a minor deal for someone like Hank Conger would have potentially been more interesting.
But I'm not sure it would have been better. Here's the thing: If you have to depend on the free agent market to fill lineup spots, you're probably not going to wind up with terribly inspiring options. Pirates fans know this first-hand. They could have done a lot worse than Martin, who, while not young, is a lot younger and more talented than most of the other free-agent catchers, most of whom are well into their 30s. If there's a problem here, it's probably not Martin. It's the fact that Tony Sanchez hasn't developed, or that the Pirates didn't draft Matt Wieters. If you're the Pirates, you'd prefer not to have to hunt for a catcher in the offseason to begin with.
Despite the low batting averages, Martin hits fairly well for a catcher. He's also more durable than most of them, although whether that will continue through his age 30 and 31 seasons remains to be seen. He also has an excellent defensive reputation for blocking and framing pitches. The Pirates will probably continue to have issues holding runners, because they don't prioritize that, but Martin should be an improvement in that area as well.
As for the contract itself, it's not exactly cheap, but I'm relieved it's not three years. And I'm less inclined to whine about the dollar amount than to appreciate the fact that the Pirates went and got one of the better catchers on the market, however flawed he might be, rather than settling for some bargain-basement type. Between Martin and Michael McKenry, I'm at least relatively confident in the Pirates' catching situation for the next couple years. This move also bumps Tony Sanchez back to Indianapolis, where he belongs for now. The difference between Martin/McKenry and McKenry/Sanchez is, to me, pretty significant -- Sanchez's bat is a huge question mark, and there isn't much behind him, so the Pirates would be in a very tough spot if McKenry got hurt or didn't hit. This isn't the best deal I've ever seen, but it's far from the worst.
The key, now, will be for the Pirates to get the rest of the offseason right. They now have a lot of money sunk into Martin, A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and Clint Barmes, but their starting rotation is still very thin. They have to make their decision about Jeff Karstens by Friday night. It wouldn't automatically be a terrible thing if they non-tendered him, but they would need to do something else about their starting pitching if they did. Signing Martin and then dumping Karstens and not replacing him would not make for a good offseason.
UPDATE: I did a separate writeup for SB Nation Pittsburgh. There's a decent chance of Martin turning out to be a little like Barmes: Young-ish veteran free agent signs two-year deal and doesn't hit, in part because his home park just got a lot tougher to deal with. Fans grab pitchforks while veteran quietly provides very good value with the glove. Obviously, that's not the outcome the Pirates are hoping for, and Martin's vastly superior approach at the plate should provide some insurance against him hitting like Barmes did. But I thought some of the parallels were interesting.