As the Chicago Cubs continue to emphasize that, while they will add impact pitching in the near-term, it doesn’t have to be this offseason, and could come at any point over the next 15 months (i.e., this offseason, the Trade Deadline, and next offseason), it’s probably not a stretch to say that there is no particular pitcher that’s a perfect fit for the Cubs. Some are better than others, and some probably fit better than others, but, given the depth of available arms over the next two years, there’s a certain sense of fungibility (even if very pricey).
In a new video at ESPN.com, Buster Olney carries that concept forward a bit, and eschews discussion of any specific pitcher in favor of a close look at catcher Russell Martin as a perfect fit for the Cubs. The rationale there is nothing you haven’t heard before, but it’s worth a watch in any case. Ultimately, Olney predicts Martin will wind up with the Cubs.
The price range Olney is hearing from folks around the game on Martin is right where we’ve expected it for a couple months now: four or five years, and $12 to $15 million per year. In his prediction, Olney steers toward the upper end of that range, and I’d agree.
I won’t rehash too much of what we’ve already discussed on Martin as a fit for the Cubs (here, here, and here, among other places), but I do want to throw out one additional piece for discussion: is Martin worth four years and $60 million if we assume serious offensive regression?
It isn’t necessarily definitive that Martin will regress significantly offensively in the coming years, but, given his age (32 next year), his position (catcher), and his BABIP last year (.336 – nearly 50 points higher than his career mark), regression seems very likely. And that tends to be what Martin opponents say when arguing against signing him.
I am in favor of the Cubs signing Martin, and I agree with the opponents. He’s going to regress. A lot, probably. But I still see the value.
Consider this: if we take an ax to Martin’s BABIP to the tune of 50 or even 60 points, and correspondingly crush his .290/.402/.430 2014 batting line, and leave him somewhere around .240/.341/.392 (which happens to be his current Steamer projection, together with a .328 wOBA and a 109 wRC+), he’s still an above-average offensive player. More importantly, he’d be far above average for a catcher. In 2014, the average offensive line for a catcher was .244/.309/.379 with a .305 wOBA and a 93 wRC+. Massively-regressed Martin blows that away.
… and even all of that is something of a diversion. The real value Martin brings likely has nothing to do with his bat, and everything to do with his defensive ability, his receiving skills, and the kind of veteran leadership qualities that are hard to quantify but everyone recognizes has value. On defense, Martin has been well above average in total defensive value every year of his career. He’s been significantly better than average at framing pitches (to the tune of about 20 runs per season).
Even if he becomes a merely average offensive catcher (average for a catcher, I mean, so below average overall), he still provides significant value on the other side of the ball – as in multiple WAR from his defense and receiving, alone. With all due love to Welington Castillo, he may very well be a net negative on defense right now. The exchange, then, from Martin to Castillo could be drastic, even if we don’t look at offense at all.
Would I go all out to get Martin? No. But would I like to see the Cubs willing to at least go to four years and $60 million? Absolutely. Catching depth in the organization at the upper levels remains weak, and the addition of Martin is not going to block anyone in the near-term (that’s not something the Cubs can say at most positions where they would add externally). Further, adding Martin converts Castillo either into a heck of a back-up (maybe even more than mere back-up-level innings), or a heck of an asset.
Adding impact pitching is rightly the Cubs’ primary focus now. But getting Martin on a palatable deal? I see a whole lot of upside there, even after accounting for the downside.