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Starkey: Pirates must prioritize keeping Russell Martin

| Tuesday, July 8, 2014, 9:57 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates catcher Russell Martin goes onto the dugout railing for a foul ball, as manager Clint Hurdle assists during the ninth inning against the Cubs Wednesday, June, 11, 2014, at PNC Park.

The Pirates stepped out of character to sign Russell Martin once. They must do so again. Or at least make a good-faith attempt. ASAP.

One could easily make the case that aside from Andrew McCutchen, Martin has been the team MVP since he walked through the door before last season. He is the club's highest-paid player at $9.5 million (fifth-highest salary among catchers) and is earning every penny.

Team president Frank Coonelly considers Martin “extraordinarily important” and gauges the club's interest level in retaining him as “very high.”

Will that translate into a fair-market offer? Something north of $10 million per year on, say, a three-year deal?

Based on the Pirates' history, you should be skeptical. Based on their history with Martin, there could be hope.

By history, I mean this: The Pirates identified Martin as a critical missing piece at a premium position two winters ago. This prompted them to break form and move quickly in writing a significant free-agent check (two years, $17 million).

The Pirates showed Martin the money while his former team, the New York Yankees, hesitated.

That same two-step logic should apply again:

A.) Man plays critically important position.

B.) Offer him fair-market value.

It's hard to win a World Series without an impact catcher. Since the turn of the millennium, it's been mostly guys named Posey, Posada, Varitek, Rodriguez, Molina (Yadier and Bengie), Ruiz and Pierzynski.

At this point, it's hard to picture the Pirates without Martin. It'd be one thing if 2009 first-round pick Tony Sanchez were ready. That would be the ideal succession plan. But Sanchez might never be ready defensively.

The idea now could be to make Martin, 31, the bridge from here to Reese McGuire, another first-round pick who just turned 19.

So start talking. It couldn't hurt. As Martin said, “I'd be stupid not to listen.”

Martin might well price himself out of town. He has earned the right to do whatever he wants. He likely will be the most attractive catcher on the open market.

But if the Pirates are fair, he will listen hard.

“I love this team. I love my teammates,” Martin told me recently. “This is the most fun I've had playing baseball, because of the team we have. And that's really important to me, the people you surround yourself with. That's more important than a lot of things in life.

“So I'm definitely happy here and definitely interested. How could I not be? This is a nice home for me, as far as the chemistry and everything moving in the right direction. I want to keep that direction going.”

The risk would be that Martin's skills erode as he moves well into his 30s. That's a legitimate concern, given the demands of the position, but catchers significantly older than him (Carlos Ruiz, A.J. Pierzynski, to name two) remained impact players well into their 30s, and Martin keeps himself in impeccable shape.

He also has retained a high degree of athleticism. Look at some of the plays he makes. Did you see him jump like a cat onto the dugout ledge in a game last month?

Manager Clint Hurdle did — and quickly became a spotter. Hurdle's first thought was protecting his catcher (and perhaps the hope of a fruitful season) at all costs.

“I'm thinking, ‘There's no way he's gonna drop on my watch,' ” Hurdle told reporters the next day. “And then when he didn't, I expected him to do a reverse-flip dismount and stick the landing.”

Hurdle couldn't say enough about Martin. He spoke of how Martin “laid into” some of the underperforming pitchers after coming off the disabled list and how Martin's trips to the mound are as important as any from the pitching coach.

Martin's tangibles include his pitch-framing skills, his overall defensive abilities and this year his knack for getting on base. The other stuff wouldn't matter without the numbers.

But the other stuff as much as some baseball observers scoff, is hugely important within the clubhouse.

As Jason Grilli told me before he was traded, “It's like osmosis when you're around him. He just exudes confidence in himself. I know he's definitely made our staff better.”

Goodness knows, the Pirates have budgeted tightly enough to where they should be able to splurge from time to time. They did so once for Martin.

They should do so again.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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