The biggest “name” positional player to whom the Chicago Cubs have been connected this offseason is easily Russell Martin. There have been reports that the Cubs might consider Martin as an upgrade behind the plate – they have very limited spots at which they can upgrade with a full-time regular offensive player – and as recently as two weeks ago, we heard that the Cubs are likely to consider Martin in free agency.
Fast forward to this week, and Patrick Mooney has a piece on that topic, which lays out many of the reasons Martin makes sense as a signing target for the Cubs. As I’ve said before, from my perspective, even with expected regression – his massive offensive output this year was propped up by an unsustainable BABIP more than 40 points higher than his career average – Martin could be extremely valuable to the Cubs. Not only does he offer that offensive upside (you could argue that Welington Castillo does, too, though), but he’s excellent defensively, excellent as a framer, and reputed to be excellent working with a staff and leading in the clubhouse. That stuff matters, especially to a young team looking to turn the corner.
Furthermore, adding Martin improves the Cubs’ overall catching situation, and could turn Castillo into a top notch back-up (perhaps with room to grow into more of an even time-share as Martin gets a little older).
But what about that “getting older” thing? Martin turns 32 in February, and the mid-to-late-30s have generally been unkind to catchers, right?
Well, that’s an interesting topic addressed in this piece at FanGraphs. During the Steroid Era, the dropoff in catcher production (by WAR) after age 30 was incredibly steep. But, then again, it also started from a much better place, exacerbating the fall. In the post-Steroid Era, by contrast, there’s still a decline after about age 33, but it’s much less steep (such that, by 35/36/37, production for catchers is just about even among eras). Does that mean that, in the post-Steroid Era, catchers will age “better” into their mid-30s on a relative basis (because we’re expecting less of them in this era in general)? If so, does that mean signing Martin to a four or five-year deal actually makes more sense now than it would have 10 years ago?
Eh. I’m not so sure I’d go that far, because the production still does drop off. The injury concerns aren’t going away, and we’re not talking about a lot of data here. Plus, you’d still be buying high on a guy’s career year at age 31. However the aging curves may have changed, we know enough to know that’s always a risk.
I see Martin getting something like four or five years at $12 million to $15 million per year. At four years and $12 or $13 million, there’s clear surplus value projected, even when you don’t consider the intangibles. Beyond that? You’re rolling the dice a bit more, but it still might be worth it.
Martin, by the way, will be attached to draft pick compensation (he’s going to receive, and reject, a qualifying offer), so the Cubs will have a relative advantage over some other interested teams, since they stand to lose only a second round pick, rather than a first.