Friday, July 3, 2009

Let's talk trade: Victor Martinez

Numerous reports have the Red Sox again taking an interest in Cleveland catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez -- and the Indians taking an interest, as anyone would, in the Red Sox's glut of young pitching.

(SI's Jon Heyman cites no sources in raising the possibility of a trade, but this is the same writer who declared a month ago that the Indians wouldn't trade Martinez because CC Sabathia -- neither a general manager or a member of the Cleveland organization -- told him so.)

It's certainly an interesting possibility. Martinez is OPS'ing .916 this season and likely will be named to the American League All-Star team on Sunday. He's one of the best hitters in the American League and would look great in the middle of the Red Sox lineup.

Among questions that would need to be answered:

How well would he fit in the lineup?
To put it simply: He'd be a terrific fit. The Red Sox have put together a batting order that, with a couple of exceptions, works counts and gets on base and generally drives opposing pitchers crazy. Here's how a few of Martinez's numbers stack up with some of the Red Sox's key hitters (sorted by overall American League rank):

On-base percentage
2. Kevin Youkilis, .439
13. Victor Martinez, .393
17. J.D. Drew, .386
27. Dustin Pedroia, .372
28. Jason Bay, .370
40. Jacoby Ellsbury, .352
57. Jason Varitek, .336
League average: .335

Pitches per plate appearance
1. Youkilis, 4.51
11. Drew, 4.15
22. David Ortiz, 4.03
25. Bay. 4.02
36. Martinez, 3.95
47. Varitek, 3.88
50. Pedroia, 3.86
League average: 3.82

Percentage of pitches swung at
8. Drew, 37 percent
9. Youkilis, 37 percent
11. Pedroia, 38 percent
12. Martinez, 38 percent
16. Bay, 39 percent
25. Mike Lowell, 42 percent
League average: 45 percent

The Red Sox grind at-bats and get on base in large part because they're so patient at the plate. Martinez excels at doing exactly what the Red Sox want their hitters to do.

Where would Martinez play?
That's the question. Right now, with Mike Lowell on the disabled list and Kevin Youkilis manning third base, Martinez could play full-time at first and catch once or twice a week to give Jason Varitek a break while allowing George Kottaras to focus exclusively on catching Tim Wakefield.

But when Lowell returns, the Red Sox suddenly would have too many talented hitters and not enough positions on the field. When the Red Sox were rumored to be flirting with Martinez in late May and early June, they were doing so because they were getting next to no production from their designated hitter. David Ortiz, though, hit .320 with seven home runs in June and has quieted those who called for his indefinite benching.

Lowell, on the other hand, is going to expect to play regularly when he gets back. He needs someone to give him an occasional break, sure, but he's still the Red Sox third baseman. (He's under contract through 2010, and the Red Sox already had to mend fences with him after their courtship of Mark Teixeira this winter.) With Youkilis at first base and Jason Varitek behind the plate, there's nowhere to play Martinez on an everyday basis.

Just to fit him on the roster, the Red Sox likely would have to release Mark Kotsay, severely depleting their depth in the outfield. (Jeff Bailey will be shipped back to Triple-A Pawtucket once Lowell is activated.) The only other option would be to try to get Kottaras through waivers and send him to Triple-A Pawtucket -- but not only do you lose Tim Wakefield's personal catcher, but you risk losing Kottaras entirely.

What should the Red Sox be willing to give up for him?
Assuming the Red Sox decide they have a place to play Martinez -- and that likely only would happen if Lowell was going to be sidelined for most of the second half -- they still have to pay a steep price for him.

The Indians, of course, are going to start with Clay Buchholz -- and they'd be right to do so. Martinez compares favorably with Youkilis as a hitter and in his versatility in the field, and the Red Sox would demand a huge ransom if they ever decided they needed to trade Youkilis.

Buchholz remains the top prospect in the organization, a potential top-of-the-rotation starter with the same sort of upside as Jon Lester -- as well as Atlanta's Tommy Hanson, Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw and Detroit's Rick Porcello.

Even better, he's under team control and cost-controlled for his first six years in the major leagues. To put that in perspective: The Red Sox are paying Brad Penny $5 million plus incentives this season. The Red Sox wouldn't have to pay Buchholz that much during his first three seasons combined. There's a reason young players have become so coveted.

Martinez will turn 31 at the end of this season and will be almost 32 when his contract expires -- assuming his $7 million option for 2010 is picked up. If the Red Sox were to make a deal for him, they'd almost certainly have to sign him to an extension to make him worth the price. Any extension, though, would include seasons in which he was 33, 34 and maybe even 35 years old -- ages at which player after player after player has shown steep decline.

The Indians can't trade Martinez without getting Buchholz back. The Red Sox can't trade Buchholz, though, without getting someone who can contribute in a cost-efficient way for more than a year and a half.

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