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Tigers take $50 million risk that Victor Martinez is rare catcher to age well into his mid-30s

Nov 23, 2010, 11:22 AM EDT

Victor Martinez

Victor Martinez’s reported four-year, $50 million deal with the Tigers would make him the third-highest paid catcher in baseball behind Joe Mauer and Jorge Posada, which is interesting given that nearly every other position has many more big-money deals.

Several factors keep catchers from cashing in more often as free agents. First and foremost is that there just aren’t a lot of great-hitting catchers. Never have been and likely never will be, which is why players like Mauer and Posada and Martinez are so valuable.

Teams generally focus first on defense behind the plate and the position also takes a lot out of players physically, so top catchers are often starting to show signs of decline by the time they reach typical free agency age in their early thirties.

Martinez’s four-year, $50 million deal would be very close to the four-year, $52.5 million contract Posada signed with the Yankees as a free agent three offseasons ago. Since then only one free agent catcher has gotten as much as even $10 million on the open market and that’s John Buck, who signed a three-year, $18 million deal with the Marlins last week.

Martinez turns 32 years old next month, so a four-year contract would go through his age-35 season. Even elite catchers tend to wear down by then, so while the $50 million commitment isn’t huge in the grand scheme of free agency it represents a risky investment in a backstop. With that said, Martinez has less wear and tear than most 32-year-old catchers thanks to seeing significant action at first base. After logging 1,108, 1,233, 1,110, and 1,043 innings behind the plate in his first four full seasons he’s caught a combined total of 2,038 innings in the past three years, along with 763 innings at first base.

Martinez’s defense has never been a strength and teams have started to run on him at will during the past two seasons, but his offensive production is good enough for him to be an asset if a full-time move to first base or designated hitter is needed and in the short term at least the Tigers are getting a bargain. They may regret the four-year, $50 million deal when he’s still on the books for $12.5 million as a 35-year-old in 2014, but in the meantime the Tigers are getting an elite-hitting catcher for less than even secondary stars typically make at other positions.

  1. cjvirnig - Nov 23, 2010 at 11:26 AM

    The Tigers, as predicted, have been bold. The fundamental question is whether a healthy Victor Martinez is a better hitter than a healthy Magglio Ordonez?

    The answer is probably no, but V-Mart’s defensive abilities (except throwing out baserunners) probably tips the scale in his favor.

    I’m still waiting for Kenny Williams to make his ubiquitous splash on the South Side, but as of this moment, the Tigers definitely look like the Twins chief competition in the central.

  2. andrewkw - Nov 23, 2010 at 11:34 AM

    I thought they were planning on using him as a DH and backup catcher?

  3. heiniemanush - Nov 23, 2010 at 11:43 AM

    It’s a perfectly decent signing. At the very least Martinez gets on base 37% of the time and the Tigers could use a disciplined hitter, even one that might end up being a full-time DH by the end of the contract. Magglio’s been a terrific player but I’m not sure he bounces back from that broken ankle so quickly. If Carlos Guillen was off the books, they could have signed Ordonez as a DH by that’s a moot point, now.

  4. Jonny 5 - Nov 23, 2010 at 11:58 AM

    Carlos Ruiz is batting just under what Martinez brings, he’s a superior defensive player to Martinez. And he is collecting 2 million a season.. Not the best deal in the world for the Tigers imo. Actually OPS+ says Chooch is better. I know,the rbi’s and HR’s aren’t even close, but the salaries are much much further apart aren’t they?

    • heiniemanush - Nov 23, 2010 at 12:13 PM

      Maybe Ruiz is a better bargain but doesn’t he benefit from hitting in a bandbox and being protected by that lineup? He’s only played in 120 games once in his career and will be 32 on opening day. He’s a nice cog in the Phillies’ machine but I’ll take Victor at the premium price.

      • Charles Gates - Nov 23, 2010 at 12:21 PM

        He hits 8th. The pitcher slot offers no protection. He might earn a few extra non intentional intentional walks which will inflate is OBP, but he is definitely not protected.

      • Jonny 5 - Nov 23, 2010 at 12:32 PM

        As Charles mentions there is no protection for Ruiz. Also CBP is not a bandbox, and OPS+ is adjusted for that anyway. Since Carlos had a better OPS+ jump from OPS one could be lead to believe that BAhhhstan is more of a bandbox than CBP is actually. I’d take the HUGE discount in Ruiz before the HUGE bath of signing that V-mart contract any day.

    • Joe - Nov 23, 2010 at 3:19 PM

      Carlos Ruiz has never been a free agent. I’m sure the Tigers would love to pay Ruiz that kind of money to be their catcher. If Carlos Ruiz was a free agent today, he’d make a lot more than $2 million.

  5. xpensivewinos - Nov 23, 2010 at 12:16 PM

    Woo-Hoo………These dopes saved the Red Sox from themselves!!!!!

    Oh, and speaking of ludicrous contracts, while they’re in the mood and have their checkbook out, would the Tigers like J.D. Drew as well????

  6. BC - Nov 23, 2010 at 12:17 PM

    Good luck with that. He’s basically done as a catcher. So do you platoon Cabrera and V-Mart at 1B/DH? I don’t know… that’s not a good investment of that much money in my mind.

  7. apbaguy - Nov 23, 2010 at 12:18 PM

    It will be interesting to see how the Tigers us him. I think he’ll be more than a backup, but the Tigers have the twin goals of nurturing Avila and sparing V-Mart significant wear and tear. Look for him to catch at most 50% of the time.

  8. Glenn - Nov 23, 2010 at 3:22 PM

    The comments section about this signing on the Boston Globe site is hilarious. Sox fans are furious, excoriating Theo, and predicting the end of the Red Sox as a contender. This is a good thing for the Sox. This deal will look pretty ugly in a year or two for the Tigers. Martinez was also a bit disappointing at the plate this year, especially from the right side. If you look at him as a DH/first basemen, he is really being overpaid for the production and he is not a real catcher anymore.

    • spindervish - Nov 23, 2010 at 3:36 PM

      I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said, except you got his split wrong. He was a monster from the right side this year. Sucked hitting lefty.

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