With a need in the bullpen addressed by the signing of reliever Joaquin Benoit earlier, Tigers General Manager Dave Dombrowski turned his attention to solidifying a catchers position that was amongst the worst in the league offensively in 2010. To do so, he signed none other than Victor Martinez, hands down the bet option available among this seasons crop of free agent catchers. While we can debate the overall value of Martinez as a catcher and how he will fit in with the 2011 Tigers (and we will, at length!) it’s safe to say that the acquisition of Martinez will, at a minimum, make the the Tigers often punchless lineup last season, much more formidable for the foreseeable future.
First, lets break down the contract. At four years, and fifty million dollars - the Tigers will be acquiring Martinez for what is likely to be the beginning of the decline phase of his career. Ideally, you’d probably like to give Martinez, 33 in late December, maybe just three years as catchers (and most players in general) tend to decline offensive at a pretty steep rate after age 34-35. But given the scarcity of good hitting catchers, combined with the Tigers general lack of offense, and the fact that Martinez will likely spend a good amount of time at designated hitter - the contract has an above average chance at being worthwhile in my opinion.
Over the past four full seasons, Martinez has been worth 4.5 (2007), 0.6 (2008), 4.7 (2009), and 3.0 WAR (2010) - using our standard rate of 4.25m per win, he’s been worth a total 54.4m during those three seasons. Of course, his 2008 was mostly lost due to injury, and that’s worth at least noting.
Given the fact that hose four seasons were essentially the back-end of his prime, and he’ll be 33 at the outset of this contract, it’s unlikely that he duplicates that level of value - but he doesn’t need to in order to justify his deal. At 50m over four years, he’ll need to average ‘just’ 2.94 WAR per season. Obviously that’s still an impressive mark, and it will be difficult for him to attain without spending significant time as a close-to-league-average catcher - but it’s do-able. The switch hitting Martinez, even at 32 years old, didn’t show any noticeable signs of decline at the plate as he continued to hit with the games best offensive catchers, posting a .302/.351/.493 - .844 OPS that was second only to Joe Mauer in the American League.
Of course his value to the Tigers will ultimately be defined by just how much time he can spend behind the plate as a capable option at catcher, because his bat is great at that position, but significantly less so as a DH. Martinez has long been known as a below average receiver behind the plate, and struggled as much as ever in throwing out runners in 2010 as teams ran at will, stealing 99 bases in 125 attempts (a 79.5% success rate). But if he can manage to stay healthy, and not get any worse, at least in the near-term (the next two years) he’ll provide just what the Tigers need.
In Alex Avila the Tigers have a solid back-up. The 23 year old Avila was rushed to the Majors in 2009 as the Tigers needed someone to pair with the now departed Gerald Laird, and his power bat against right-handed pitching helped carry the Tigers through their late-season playoff push that ultimately came up just short. But Avila, at this point at least, is strictly a platoon option as he struggles mightily against left-handed pitching. That said, he’s a solid if unspectacular defender who does a capable job of controlling the running game and should be a fine late-game replacement should the Tigers feel the need to replace Martinez in such situations. Offensively, he’ll make a decent platoon partner against right-handed pitching when the Tigers decide to have Martinez DH.
As Martinez ages, particularly over the final two years of his contract, it’s likely that he’ll be increasingly relegated to DH duties where his bat should still be around league average for the position. The hope for the Tigers would be that Martinez stays healthy and proves to be a capable option at catcher for the next two seasons while continuing to post WAR marks in the 4.0 range while providing help in the middle of the lineup -either by creating chances in front of Miguel Cabrera, or by providing “protection” (which I really don’t believe in) behind him. Personally, I’d probably bat Martinez ahead of Cabrera if only because Martinez’s bat simply isn’t such a threat, even now, to prevent teams from working around Cabrera.
If Martinez can stay healthy and follow a WAR progression of 4.0 - 4.0 - 2.5 - 2.5 through his contract, he’ll more than justify the signing. Of course, that’s always the risk in signing free agents. You’re going to pay them for the best possible scenario, and are always unlikely to get it. But as free agent signings go, I think this is one that will pay off.