Russell Martin agreed today to a five-year, $82 million deal with the Blue Jays, ending his two-year tenure as the Pirates' starting catcher. The Bucs will now, presumably, head into the season with Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart at catcher, which is what we figured when they traded for Cervelli last week. The Pirates will, of course, get a draft pick at the end of the first round as a result of Martin's departure, since he rejected the Bucs' qualifying offer.
As much as I would have loved for the Pirates to re-sign Martin, I would have criticized them if they had signed him for $82 million. Every bit of evidence suggests Martin will go downhill at some point in this deal. The Blue Jays know they aren't likely to get much value out of the fifth year of this deal, and probably not the fourth either.
Even next season, which of course is likely to be the most valuable one, Martin's .336 2014 BABIP should return to normal, and Steamer projects he'll hit .241/.341/.392. That's very good for a catcher, particularly a catcher with exceptional defense, and Martin should outproduce whatever his salary is for that first year. But that's the high point. It boggles my mind how Martin's market escalated, and how much the Jays were willing to pay for Martin's framing (which we can basically quantify) and work with pitchers (which we can't). (At least I assume those are key reasons the Jays paid so heavily.) Even fans now have a pretty good understanding of how important framing is, and yet it's still an undervalued skill elsewhere on the market. You can still go get a Cervelli or a Stewart or a Hank Conger for pennies on the dollar; you don't need to throw $82 million at Russell Martin. That doesn't mean Martin isn't extremely valuable, only that it's surprising to see a team pay so heavily for a skill they can get elsewhere for far less.
Let's take a moment, by the way, to appreciate how fantastic the Pirates' Martin contract was. Two years ago, the Bucs got Martin for only $17 million. Now, the Jays are paying almost five times as much for a catcher who's two years older. It's a shame the Pirates can't keep Martin, but the decision-making that brought him to Pittsburgh was flat-out terrific -- they got out ahead of the market in finding a great framer, defensive player and teammate, and the deal would have been a tremendous one even if Martin hadn't hit as well as he did.
In any case, it's hard to argue that the Pirates should have kept Martin at this price. His contract is likely to be an albatross in three years or so, and a big-market team can plan for that with the idea that they'll be getting decent value in the first couple seasons. The Bucs can't. They need to spend more money, but if they're going to spend on players in their 30s, expensive five-year contracts aren't the way to do it. A five-year deal for a younger player Jose Abreu, or Yasmany Tomas, or maybe even someone like Pablo Sandoval, would be one thing. A five-year, $82 million deal for a soon-to-be-32-year-old catcher is another. I appreciate the heck out of what Martin did as a Pirate, but given where the market went, the Bucs made the right decision in letting him go. They should now turn their attention to finding more pitching help.