We’ve discussed it many times: it would be great if the Chicago Cubs could add a veteran bat that not only provides leadership, but also provides a consistent offensive upgrade in 2015. But, positionally-speaking, the Cubs are somewhat limited in places where that upgrade could come, given the emerging youth on the team. To my eye, there have always been two plausible locations, if we’re looking purely at the Cubs adding a player in free agency: outfield and catcher.
Let’s talk about that second one.
Welington Castillo is cost-controlled, does so many defensive things well, and has hit better than the average catcher over the course of his three starting seasons with the big team. On the other hand, Castillo’s issues with pitch framing are well documented (and the value there might be much greater than we’ve previously thought) and his offensive numbers have declined this year in tandem with an expected drop in BABIP (from .348/47 in 2012 and 2013 to .300 this year).
On the whole, Castillo still looks like a better-than-average catcher (2.2 WAR this year), but the position is a plausible spot to upgrade, and the Cubs will have to at least consider it. Throw in the fact that, at the upper levels, the Cubs are really bereft of big league caliber catching depth, and adding a nominal “starter” to the mix, together with Castillo, could turn the position in a significant strength. In other words, adding a catcher from the outside might not be any kind of vote-of-no-confidence in Castillo, but instead a mere recognition that there are only so many spots where the Cubs can realistically supplement their roster with impact talent. And Castillo, of course, could still play an important role going forward in any case.
As you might expect, the free agent market for catchers ain’t pretty. There are a number of passable back-up options, but, if you’re looking for an impact bat, there’s probably only one guy with a shot: Russell Martin.
Martin has been discussed at length in the comments here for weeks now, and I’ll concede that I’d resisted writing too much about him for now because, well, it’s mid-September, and there hadn’t been any specific rumors linking the Cubs to Martin (in the same way that, for example, there have been rumors aplenty about Jon Lester).
Gordon Wittenmyer just wrote about the Cubs and Martin, however, so I guess we’ll go ahead and talk about it now. Wittenmyer mentions that, internally, there is some discussion about Castillo’s future. From there, he discusses with Martin the attractiveness of young, rebuilding teams like the Cubs. Consider that Martin has consistently played on winning and playoff teams – the experiences and lessons from which could be valuable to a young roster without that kind of background.
Martin, who will turn 32 before next season begins, has been an offensive force for the Pirates this year, hitting .295/.410/.428 and posting his best walk rate (13.2%) and strikeout rate (17.0%) in years. Sure, the .344 BABIP is unsustainably high (he’s at just .289 for his career), but his success this year is clearly not just luck.
Martin’s career trajectory has been interesting. He was a stud back in his early days with the Dodgers before going through a five-year stretch (before this season), where he was essentially average or slightly below average with the bat (pretty much right there where Welington Castillo has been this year). And then, this season, the explosion. Some circumspection is required.
That said, the walk rate has always been good, he doesn’t strike out much, and there’s a little pop. Most importantly, Martin’s defense has always been rated as excellent, complete with elite pitch-framing skills. Will those skills hold up at that level post-32? How about the offense?
Those are the questions the Cubs would have to ask before seriously entertaining an offer to Martin. Because he’s going to be pricey. Having received two years and $17 million from the Pirates after a few of those “down” seasons, Martin seems likely to get at least three years this time around, and probably for more than $10 million per year. And, being perfectly candid, even three years and $30 million seems pretty light. You don’t want to pay for what he’s done, as opposed to what he will do, but even if he’s merely a league-average catcher, that is probably worth $10 million per year.
And if we tried to play the WAR valuation game, if Martin is projected to be a 3.0 WAR catcher for each of the next three seasons, and if a win in free agency costs about $6 million, then you’re talking about a three-year, $54 million contract. No, Martin probably isn’t going to get $18 million per year … but he might have a decent argument for it.
The Cubs will have the money to spend, even after focusing on adding impact pitching. Organizationally, catching is a need, and someone like Martin could be an important piece for several years as the Cubs transition from young rebuilding club to young competitive club. And you’ve got to admit: a Martin/Castillo tandem certainly sounds more appealing than a Castillo/Baker tandem, as much as we might like John Baker’s mustache/guitar/quotes/pitching.
All in all, a pursuit of Martin is something worth discussing, even if there are some questions about the best use of resources.