Pirates must weigh risk, reward in attempt to sign Martin

Travis Sawchik
| Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014, 11:09 p.m.

General manager Neal Huntington has said the Pirates will “stretch beyond normal comfort levels” to retain Russell Martin. The city wants the club to stretch to retain the free agent catcher. But how far should the Pirates be willing to stretch in dollars and years for a catcher who will turn 32 in February?

Twelve years ago, another small-market team entered the offseason facing a similar dilemma with a signature player who approached his age-32 season.

Cleveland Indians first baseman Jim Thome entered free agency in November 2002 as the club's all-time home run leader. Thome also was a clubhouse leader and renowned for his work off the field. He was a key part of the Indians' rebirth, and losing him would be a public relations hit. Though the club rarely pursued high-priced free agents, then-Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said Thome was to be “an exception.”

Still, the Indians did not want an emotional decision to lead to a poor investment. The Indians turned to their proprietary database, “DiamondView,” one of the first such systems in the sport, and wanted to learn how hitters age. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Indians found that, since 1980, only Barry Bonds had produced elite numbers after age 35.

The Indians were not willing to give Thome a significant portion of the club's payroll beyond his 36th birthday. The Philadelphia Phillies were willing, signing him to a six-year deal. Large-market teams can better afford poor returns on the back end of deals. Though the Indians correctly forecasted Thome's decline, the club suffered an attendance hit in part for letting the star walk.

The Pirates connection? Huntington watched the decision-making process as an assistant in the Indians front office. Now it is Huntington who must weigh the lack of comparative alternatives at catcher, future payroll forecasts, public relations fallout and performance projections from the Pirates' propriety database.

There isn't much time: Free agency begins five days after the World Series ends. The Tribune-Review studied how catchers have aged over the past 35 years, and here's a teaser: Not well.

It's the years and the dollars

Martin picked an excellent time for a career season. He's not just the only star-level catcher available in a catcher-bereft free agent class, but his 5.5 wins above replacement (WAR) in 2014 also are the most among all projected free agent position players.

Martin and his agent, Matt Colleran, are aware of contracts signed by comparable catchers in recent years.

Last offseason Brian McCann, who played 2014 at age 30, signed a five-year, $85 million deal with the New York Yankees. In 2012, Yadier Molina signed a five-year, $75 million extension with the St. Louis Cardinals that began in 2013 when Molina turned 31. Miguel Montero signed a five-year, $60 million extension with the Arizona Diamondbacks that began in 2013 when Montero turned 30.

Martin might not get five years because he's older than those comparable players. But speculation has him receiving four years, which would take him though his age-35 season.

Much of the public's criticism of the Pirates centers on their low payroll. With Martin, however, the club's dilemma figures to be as much about the length of the contract as the dollars.

Martin was outstanding in 2014 and figures to be productive in the short term. But what will he be in 2016 and beyond?

Over the past 10 seasons, 31-year-old catchers combined for 37 WAR and 4,072 games played. Over the same period, 34-year-old catchers combined for 20.8 WAR and 2,628 games played.

Complicating long-term aging studies is the so-called Steroid Era that inflated production and lengthened careers.

“We're in an interesting era for age curves because of the skew of performance-enhancing drugs,” Huntington said. “We are trying to re-evaluate aging curves because they were taken way out of whack because of the influence of performance-enhancing drugs.”

Using BaseballReference.com, the Tribune-Review studied the performance of catchers from the Steroid Era (1990-2004) and those of the 1980s.

While Steroid Era catchers in their early 30s outperformed similarly aged catchers of the last decade, they suffered a steeper decline in performance when comparing the age-31 group to age-34 group of catchers. The older catchers produced 67.4 percent less WAR value and 67.9 percent less playing time.

Age-31 catchers of the 1980s combined for nearly identical production to those of the last decade, suffering a similar decline.

Across all three periods of study, catchers combined for significant drop-off beginning at age 34 — which would be two years into a new contract for Martin.

Short-term value vs. Father time

Maybe Martin is an exception.

Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, and Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk performed like All-Stars in their mid-30s.

Martin's story from spring training about his renewed training discipline was one that meant something. To better monitor his diet, he wore a Zephry BioHarness under his jersey to measure how many calories he burned.

It helped Martin plan his diet, and he stayed in excellent shape throughout the season.

“I gained weight during the (2013) season just because I felt so hungry at the end of games. I would eat until I wasn't hungry again,” Martin said this spring. “(Zephry) lets me know how many calories I've burned throughout the day.”

Several hours before games during the season, Martin was running steps or kicking a soccer ball around with Gerrit Cole. Still, he also made just his second career trip to the disabled list, missing 21 games to a hamstring injury. How comfortable are the Pirates in extending Martin into his mid-30s?

“There are certain realities of the aging curve,” Huntington said, “and then you take into account the specifics of each player, and you weigh that accordingly in your offer.”

What also complicates a catcher's projected performance is the variety of skills at the position age in different ways.

While bat speed, foot speed and arm strength do not age well, catching is a unique position in which some subtle skills do age well.

One of Martin's top skills — pitch framing, the ability to influence borderline strike-ball calls — has been quantified. In a 2013 article for BaseballProspectus.com, Max Marchi found the “aging effect (of pitch framing) is very small, with no more than two runs separating the prime from the career nadir.”

Martin's ability to frame pitches consistently ranks among the best in the game, roughly equivalent to creating two wins per year — creating two wins in terms of WAR is roughly worth $11 million on the free agent market.

While giving a 32-year-old catcher a long-term contract typically would be a dangerous proposition, this decision will not play out in a vacuum for the Pirates.

There are few options at catcher in free agency, and trading for a quality catcher would not be cheap. Pirates prospect Elias Diaz has just a handful of games above Double-A, and there are questions whether backup Chris Stewart would be an adequate Plan B. Since signing Martin two winters ago, the Pirates have produced back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1991-92. They have an MVP-talent in Andrew McCutchen under club control for four more seasons.

Moreover, the Pirates are increasing ticket prices, and the record number of fans who showed up at PNC Park in 2014 want to see investment in the future. Though the Indians were rebuilding in 2002, their attendance declined by 900,000 in 2003 after Thome departed. The Indians' attendance never has recovered.

Will Martin age well? That wasn't a primary concern Oct. 1. As Martin walked to the plate for perhaps his final at-bat as a Pirate in the wild-card game loss to San Francisco, PNC Park erupted into “Re-sign Russ! … Re-sign Russ!” chants. The Pirates heard those pleas.

Said Huntington: “We will stretch to as far we possibly we feel we can, and hopefully it's enough.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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