In his first homestand with the Pirates in April of 2013, Russell Martin went 0-for-10.
In the last week, in what may have been his last regular season homestand in a Pirates uniform at PNC Park, Martin provided two game-winning hits that virtually locked up a second playoff berth.
Before acquiring Martin, the Pirates had twice succumbed to inexplicable and dramatic late-season collapses and were in need of a stabilizing presence, leadership and good defense from the catcher's position. Now, Martin is likely to be one of this offseason's top free agents, and the Pirates are a team that prides itself on resiliency and an organization that expects to make the playoffs.
Recently, the Pirates' front office has begun to brace the fan base for what appears to be Martin's inevitable departure. The Pirates are already trying to get ahead of the fan anger that will surely follow if he leaves.
"We'd love nothing more than to have Russell Martin in a Pirates uniform for years to come," Neal Huntington said at his weekly press meeting today. "And if it were unilateral, he would be. It's not. And if we don't have enough, then we'll do the very best to find the next Russ Martin."
In many ways, the Pirates' front office is likely to become the victim of its own success. Signing Martin was a brilliant stroke that has paid huge dividends. And it is because of that shrewd decision that the Pirates are staring down the barrel of a public backlash that is sure to involve the worst of all accusations: that the franchise values growing its profit margin over winning championships.
Huntington is well aware of criticisms that lie ahead, but Pirates fans are likely to be disappointed if they hope that public pressure and Martin's extraordinary season will force the Pirates to depart from their careful roster-building philosophy and entangle themselves in a bidding war against larger-market teams. If anything came out of today's chat with the press, it was the clear signal that Huntington has no intention of departing from an organizational philosophy that he thinks has keyed the team's recent success, and which he believes is the only successful formula for a small market franchise.
"It's the reality of small markets. We're going to have to continue to find value where others don't," Huntington explained. "We're going to have to continue to pay guys for what we believe they are going to do, not what they've done. And the bigger markets certainly have the luxury to be able to extend much beyond comfort levels, to pay another year or two, to pave over prior mistakes with more money."
Huntington continued, "Successful small markets pay players based on what they think they are going to do. They pay players what they are comfortable paying them ... there are road maps for us to avoid as well because of other clubs feeling like they have to do something rather than choosing to do something."
These are the key components of the organization's approach: It determines value based on internal evaluations of anticipated performance not simply on recent past performance, and it won't make a decision under duress, only calculated choice.
The irony is that the public relations hit the Pirates are going to take over the next few months is exactly what you expect when this approach is successful. As Huntington put it today, "Russ is one of those unique circumstances where we got beat up and highly criticized for signing him when we did. And if he does walk out the door, we'll get highly criticized when he does walk out the door."
Some criticized the Pirates when they signed Martin because they did not feel his anticipated performance would match his salary. As it turns out, his value far exceeded his cost.
Now, many are convinced that his recent performance accurately predicts future performance, and all that needs to be done is to pay him what he's worth. But that likely isn't quite right, at least from the Pirates' perspective. The market will probably overvalue Martin's future exactly because it will weight recent performance too heavily. Indeed, Martin is going to be the consummate "buy high" free agent who big market teams gobble up because they are the only ones who can, and precisely because they've tended to place too much weight on recent performance in the past. In the end, the Pirates likely anticipate a level of performance, especially three or four years from now, that will be below what the market is going to be willing to pay. The Pirates are allergic to such inefficiencies, maybe for good reason.
Now, perhaps Martin is the type of player the Pirates should be willing to overpay for. Indeed, beyond what can be measured, I've grown to strongly appreciate the intangible value that Martin brings to the team. Every pitcher on the staff credits Martin with making him better. There is a lot of immeasurable value in that.
Moreover, perhaps the Pirates do have a level of financial flexibility that they are simply not being honest about. I don't know enough about that to comment, so I just take the situation for what they say it is.
Regardless, here are the facts. To re-sign Martin, the Pirates will have to violate their own commitment to staying on the right side of the value versus anticipated performance equation as they calculate it, and rightly or wrongly, they are not going to do that. With the Pirates steadfastly sticking with a formula that they believe provides them the best opportunity for consistent and continued winning, and with Martin committed to seeing what the market will offer, it is almost certain that he won't be the Pirates' starting catcher in 2015.
When Martin's career with the Pirates does come to an end, the iconic image from last year's playoff-berth-clinching moment will best capture his time in in Pittsburgh. The picture shows Martin upright on both knees in full catcher's gear, firmly holding the game-ending out over his head as chaos breaks out around him. It perfectly captures the confluence of both Martin's and the Pirates' needs being met, expectations far exceeded, wallets filled and organizational philosophies rewarded. The interesting question that remains, and which may change the symbolism of the image dramatically in the years ahead, is whether the organization will end up being viewed as having been too rigid in its adherence to an underlying philosophy when it was presented with its most consequential test.