Why the Cubs Want Russell Martin and Why They May Not Get Him

I want Russell Martin in Chicago. Apparently the Cubs do too.

The Cubs have made no secret about the need for position-player leadership to help shepherd what is an unprecedented amount of young talent arriving at Wrigley field. GM Jed Hoyer has talked about how it is unfair to ask older players who are playing for their very careers at this point to be those leaders. And so we intrepid, money-hungry bloggers have spent most of this year scouring the ranks of Major League Baseball for someone who fits the bill.

The task is a difficult one. You need to find a player who possesses those ineffable qualities of leadership and whose play can take some of the pressure off of Javier Baez, Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant. Complicating matters are the very real roster limitations on this team. The Cubs will very likely have six positions filled by a player at the age of 25 or younger by May 2015.

The entire infield, along with two spots in the outfield, should be manned–barring catastrophic injury or franchise-changing trade–by Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Arismendy Alcantara. That leaves an outfield spot and catcher as the only places in the 2015 lineup to squeeze in this critical everyday leader.

That would have seemed crazy just one calendar year ago, with Welington Castillo emerging as one of the Cubs’ best position players. But his performance this year fell short of the emerging above-average regular. Instead, Beef Castle appears to be little more than just an average big league catcher. That has value–a lot actually–but comparing his production and age to the players arriving makes his spot vulnerable.

Russell Martin provides many skills that Castillo is lacking. Offensively, he would increase the BB% and lower the K%, both of which are areas of concern. That is not considering his outstanding season this year, but more on that later. Martin has provided over 4 WAR in a season four times in his career and his skill-set at the plate matches the approach the front office is trying to cultivate. That is difficult, what with being “locked” into three Hendry-era holdovers already in Castro, Alcantara, and Baez.

Russell Martin is a good defensive catcher, better than Welington Castillo when factoring in things like pitch framing. Castillo has rightfully drawn flack for his ability to frame pitches. Martin has been substantially better over the course of his career though, and this is one tangible skill that can make the players around him better.

A Martin signing could be beneficial in the free agent arms race as well. The Cubs are in the market for top-of-the-rotation arms, with Jon Lester believed to be at the top of the list. Bringing Russell Martin aboard would show dedication of resources to winning now, along with the infusion of young talent. Lester has benefited greatly from a catcher that was good at framing pitches; the extra selling point of a quality receiver in Martin would be a nice sweetener to the heavy bidding for the 31-year-old southpaw.

When it comes to baseball, I am a numbers guy. As such, I feel out of my element trying to quantify something like leadership. While everyone agrees it is important, leadership is impossible to define accurately. I will, however, try to illustrate my point with a few numbers.

On the current roster the Cubs have a combined 13 postseason games played from noted key cogs Edwin Jackson and Wesley Wright. Russell Martin has played in 39 postseason games. Martin would provide a respected voice in the clubhouse, a guy who has been there and who can take some of the pressure off the coaching staff to fill the leadership void in this organization.

Castillo has three years of arbitration remaining, so, in a perfect world, the Cubs could sign Martin to a three-year deal. That would provide a solid duo, with a perhaps a 100/60 game split in playing time favoring Martin. That would keep both players fresh and allow Rafael Lopez to perhaps be the best third catching option the Cubs have ever had stashed in Iowa.

Driving interest in Martin is the fact that he was an offensive revelation for the Pirates in 2014. At .369 (which is beyond studly for a catcher), his wOBA* was tied for the highest of his career and he also established a career high wRC+* of 139.  The problem is that this explosion was carried by a .342 BABIP*, which is nearly 60 points higher than his career average of .289.

Another problem with pursuing Martin is that bidding for the veteran backstop is very likely to push a deal to 4 or more years That may mean heavy interest from AL teams that can offer the ability to DH periodically in order to keep him fresh and extend his career. However, any team signing Martin and expecting him to replicate his .400+ OBP is going to be sorely disappointed.

The issue with offering a 4-year deal is that a catcher’s production tends to be very limited beyond Martin’s present age of 31. Since 1901 there have only been 102 seasons of 2 or more WAR from a catcher 32 years of age or older. Many of those catchers had one or two productive seasons and were a replacement-level player the rest of their short career. Having already caught over 1,000 big league games, the odds of Martin being productive through his age 34 season, let alone age 35, are extremely low.

Russell Martin is an ideal candidate for the Cubs in terms of filling an available spot with much-needed offensive and defensive skills.  He also fills a leadership void on the 25-man roster next year.  Unfortunately, given his spectacular 2014, he is likely to command far more than his true value on the open market.  The Cubs’ best hope to land him is that a qualifying offer could depress his market to the point that he is a reasonable overpay. Otherwise, the Cubs will likely have to shop the market to find value in the backup role.

*Just in case you’re not intimately familiar with these stats, or simply need a brush-up, check this out.

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