Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The value of Victor Martinez

With rumors on a contract extension for Joe Mauer flying around, it appears more and more likely that the Twins will sign their franchise catcher to a contract extension before he hits the free-agent market.

That would leave Victor Martinez as the best catcher available in an otherwise weak class of catchers whose contracts will expire after the 2010 season. For teams losing catchers in the near future -- and the Yankees and Red Sox both are in that category -- the switch-hitting Martinez could be a prize worth fighting over.

His last four seasons:
2006: .316/.391/.465 (.856)
2007: .301/.374/.505 (.879)
2008: .278/.337/.365 (.701)
2009: .303/.381/.480 (.861)

If you drop the one outlier, Martinez has demonstrated that he's a perennial threat to get on base at a clip of .375 or better and to slug .475 or better. He's a terrific hitter. The number of teams inquiring about his services will reflect that.

His value, though, will depend on the position he's playing. His value will drop precipitously if he's more of a first baseman than a catcher going forward.

Consider again the last four seasons:

2006: 127 starts at C/19 starts at 1B
2007: 118 starts at C/24 starts at 1B
2008: 54 starts at C/9 starts at 1B
2009: 82 starts at C/66 starts at 1B

A year after an elbow injury cost him most of June, July and August, Martinez saw a dramatic upturn in his time at first base. He made almost as many starts at first base in his two months in Boston (22) as he had any any full season to that point.

His 30th birthday is in his rear-view mirror. His days of catching 100-plus games probably are over.

Theo Epstein made clear at the start of the offseason that Martinez will assume the bulk of the catching duties next season. The older Martinez gets, though, the more time he'll spend at first base to diminish the injury risk while keeping his bat in the lineup. For the Red Sox, the development of Luis Exposito, Tim Federowicz and Mark Wagner makes Martinez even less likely to catch every day in 2011 and 2012.

Once the contract of David Ortiz expires, Martinez even could play 40 or 50 games as the designated hitter to minimize wear and tear on his body.

The less he plays catcher, though, the less valuable he becomes. His OPS last season (.856) ranked him second in the major leagues among catchers. Among all players, though, he ranked 47th -- behind, among others, Nick Swisher, Russell Branyan and Michael Cuddyer.

He's an elite hitter as a catcher. He's actually a pretty average hitter as a first baseman. Finding a good-hitting catcher is simply more difficult than finding a good-hitting first baseman -- and the Wins Above Replacement statistic makes that clear in each of Martinez's big seasons at the plate:

Martinez, C (.856 OPS): 4.9 WAR
Justin Morneau, 1B (.934 OPS): 4.4 WAR
Carlos Delgado, 1B (.909 OPS): 2.9 WAR
Todd Helton, 1B (.880 OPS): 2.4 WAR

Martinez, C (.879 OPS): 5.2 WAR
Prince Fielder, 1B (1.013 OPS): 5.1 WAR
Ryan Howard, 1B (.976 OPS): 4.3 WAR
Mark Teixeira, 1B (.963 OPS): 3.9 WAR

(2008 was something of a wasted season for Martinez. so we'll ignore that here.)

Martinez, C/1B (.861 OPS): 4.9 WAR
Ryan Howard, 1B (.931 OPS): 4.8 WAR
Kendry Morales, 1B (.924 OPS): 4.2 WAR
Justin Morneau, 1B (.878 OPS): 3.2 WAR

What does that tell you? Moving from catcher to first base, in terms of value, is about the same as a 100-point drop in OPS. A contract for a catcher with an OPS of .850 should look a lot different than a contract for a first baseman with an OPS of .850.

If Martinez is willing to play for $10 or $12 million a season, the Red Sox should lock him up for the next three or four years. If another team offers Martinez anything close to Mauer money -- or even anything close to Matt Holliday money -- the Red Sox probably will be better off letting him walk.

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