It’s pretty unanimous that the most important off-the-field decision facing the Pirates is the status of catcher Russell Martin, who will be a free agent at the end of the season. At worst, Martin is the Pirates’ second most valuable player. Not only has he been highly integral to their success the past two seasons, there is no internal option remotely in his class.
But, face it, the chances of the Pirates signing Martin are legitimately somewhere between slim and none. And this is not about the Pirates being cheap. Martin will be the best catcher available in free agency and eligible to sign with any team. The Pirates might be willing to make a strong, and from them a record-breaking, offer. But such are the economic inequities of MLB, that if the Pirates were willing to pay Martin an annual salary higher than they’ve paid anyone, it could easily be topped by another team.
For the sake of this discussion, let’s call Martin gone.
There are two other important free agents on the roster -- Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez. Because the Pirates have pitching depth, it is unlikely they will be involved in bidding for these players, and if they are, it’s not likely they’ll win the contest. Liriano and Volquez also are gone.
Who’s next for the Pirates?
Among the 12 players on the active roster who will be eligible for arbitration, two jump out in terms of financial commitment and need: Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez.
• Walker will be in his third of four arbitration years. His current salary is $5.75 million. Based on the year he’s having, that could jump to close to $10 million. That figure could spiral toward $15 million in Walker’s final year of arbitration.
• Alvarez will be in his second of three arbitration years. His current salary is $4.25 million. Based on the year he’s having, his contract should be in the $5.5 million to $6.5 million range next season. If he finishes strong, it could be more. If he reverts to his 2013 form, when he led the National League in home runs, in 2015, he, too, could be making upwards of $10 million in 2016.
Alvarez is a client of agent Scott Boras, who usually, but not always, has his players opt for free agency. That’s particularly true in the case of Alvarez because his talents are better suited to the American League, where he also could be used as a designated hitter. Since that is the case, there’s an excellent chance the Pirates will trade Alvarez before he hits free agency.
That leaves Walker.
His is a complicated situation. The fact he will be 31 when he hits free agency fosters the opinion that the Pirates should just have him play out his final two years and allow him to leave because it’s never a good idea to sign a player to a long-term deal when he’s in his 30s. There’s some wisdom in such a philosophy, but Walker’s circumstances are unique.
For one, he is a local guy and extremely popular with the fan base. It doesn’t hurt that he carries an All-American-type image. People would be angry if he were not retained, although that would not heavily influence the Pirates.
Of more importance is that in the Pirates long list of top prospects, there’s only one middle infielder and that player, Alen Hanson, has been somewhat of a problem for the team this season. He has been suspended for improper behavior. And although he’s having a good season as a shortstop at Class AA Altoona, he is not a sure-thing.
Finally, there’s the recent power surge by Walker, who is a switch-hitter. He already has 15 home runs, one short of his career high. His OPS of .827 is the highest of his career. Furthermore, after three seasons of abysmal performance while hitting right-handed, he has reversed that and a major shortcoming in his game has been removed.
He is among the best second basemen in the game. Only Robinson Cano has a higher OPS among second baseman. His offense has so improved that his numbers also play at third base. Among MLB third baseman, he’d be fifth in OPS and fourth in slugging.
At second base, he’s sure-handed but lacking in range. His glove might play better at third, where he has considerable minor-league experience.
Walker is a versatile middle-of-the-line bat. If Martin is not signed, the Pirates have no higher priority. Despite the fact he will be 31 at the end of the 2016 season, the Pirates have little choice but to sign him to a long-term deal
The Pirates should attempt to head off Walker’s final two arbitration seasons and get something done this winter. Since he’s going to make around $20 million to $25 million for the next two seasons, it’s going to take at least four years to get Walker’s attention He would be 33 when such a contract expired.
Four years, $45 million might be a bit below market standard, but could get the deal done. If not, maybe five years, $50 million. It would mean Walker would be making more per season than Andrew McCutchen, a miscarriage of something, but that’s life in MLB.
The Pirates need Walker, particularly the new-and-improved Walker. Get a deal done.