Bob Smizik: Can Martin be signed?

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One thing everybody can agree on about the Pirates is that they absolutely must sign Russell Martin for the 2015 and 2016 seasons and, if need be, 2017. Almost as much as Andrew McCutchen, he is a key to their success.

While the Yankees, his former team, dallied, the Pirates acted and signed Martin to a two-year, $17 million contract on Nov. 29, 2012. The Pirates moved aggressively and correctly on Martin and made him an offer that almost equaled what he had previously made in his career.

The deal turned out to be excellent for both sides. Martin is a master handler of a pitching staff, a natural leader, a good teammate, a stellar defender, a marksman of a thrower, and a much-better-than-anticipated hitter.

Sign him up!

Oh, that it were so easy.

Some background: It is late June, the Pirates are doing well after a poor start, and the team still is criticized for not signing first baseman Justin Morneau. The criticism for not signing outfielder Marlon Byrd has slowed, if not stopped, but it was heavy earlier in the season.

Critics act as though all the Pirates had to do was press a button and those players would be theirs. There’s a reason the term is free agent. Once having reached that status, players are free to sign anywhere. There are 29 other possible suitors.

The Pirates weren’t the only team in need of a first baseman that did not scoop up Morneau. Milwaukee, to cite one example, also passed and opted for a platoon of Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay, who are almost totally responsible for the Milwaukee first base OPS of .689. Which is 26 points lower than the Pirates’.

It’s not easy to sign a free agent. The notion that just because Byrd and Morneau played some six weeks for the Pirates makes them more likely to sign with them is nonsense. In Morneau’s case, he had done nothing in his time with the Pirates to merit a big contract and he was coming off a fourth straight year of a sub-.800 OPS.

All of which is a long way of stating the Pirates‘‍ chances of signing Martin are slim. Not none, but slim.

For all the reasons he is desirable to the Pirates, he is desirable to the many teams that could use a quality catcher next season. There will not be 29 other such teams, but enough to create spirited bidding. Most of the teams in the hunt for Martin will have more money to spend than the Pirates.

The Pirates could pre-empt free agency and make Martin a lucrative offer and get his signature on a new contract. But that’s a tactic seldom employed. For one, teams don’t like to bid against themselves. For another, players don’t like to have just one suitor.

And, let’s face it, the Pirates are one of the last teams, if not the last, that would blow Martin away with a pre-emptive offer. Correctly or not, that’s how they operate.

There’s no disputing Martin’s value. His on-base percentage is .407, which is fifth-best in the National League and ahead of, among others, Yasiel Puig, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt and Carlos Gomez. The ability to get on base cannot be understated. Martin’s power numbers are down this year, but his OBP, which is almost always around 100 points higher than his batting average, combined with his defense and leadership will make him a coveted player.

According to MLBTR.com, Martin will not only be the top free-agent catcher available, he’s the 10th-best overall.

Baseball Prospectus reports these are the other catchers who will be eligible for free agency at the end of the season (an asterisk indicates an option year in the contract): John Buck, Ryan Doumit, *Nick Hundley, Gerald Laird, *Jeff Mathis, Wil Nieves, Miguel Olivo, Ronny Paulino, A.J. Pierzynski, David Ross, Geovany Soto, Kurt Suzuki.

The comparatively light class only serves to enhance Martin's credentials.

Could he sign with the Pirates? Anything is possible, but it seems unlikely.

• Martin might have enjoyed his time in Pittsburgh, but this will be his last big contract. He’s not likely going to be doing any hometown discounts.

• The Pirates might take advantage of the spiraling revenues in MLB and use some of that money to keep Martin. But there is nothing in the history of the Nutting ownership group that would indicate it would be willing to spend what it takes to land such a sought-after free agent.

Tony Sanchez is the heir apparent. But he’s in the midst of a disappointing Class AAA season, which might change that status. Still, the unlikelihood of the Pirates signing Martin probably won’t change.


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