Victor Martinez recently expressed a desire to stay with the Red Sox past the 2010 season. This shouldn't be a surprise to those who have followed Martinez. When he left the Indians last year, it was one of the more emotional departures from a club in recent memory. He was invested in the team, his teammates, the city, the fans—Victor Martinez is no mercenary, and he wants to find another home like he had in Cleveland. Based on comments he made to Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald recently, it seems like he would be happy to have Boston be that place.
After last year, when Martinez hit .336/.405/.507 following his midseason trade to the Red Sox, most fans of the team would be just as happy to have him here. Unfortunately, we can't look at that line in a vacuum and assume resigning Martinez will mean many more years of a .900 OPS catcher. There are concerns that have to be taken into account when considering a contract extension for both sides.
A Catcher, or a Designated Hitter?
The most commonly cited concern when talking about big catcher contracts now-a-days is how long the player will be able to remain behind the plate. When reports claimed inaccurately that Joe Mauer had signed a new megadeal, Twins fans were understandably ecstatic, but still the nagging question remained: How many years would they be paying for a catcher, and how many years would they be paying for a DH? Once considered something of a hack behind the plate, Martinez has improved the last few years as a defensive catcher as far as blocking balls, calling a game, and fielding bunts are concerned. But catching is a tremendously difficult job: it places a great deal of stress on the knees, and they get banged up by fouls, wild pitches, and long swings all the time. It takes a pretty durable guy to manage to catch for a full season. Is Victor Martinez that guy?
There isn't much evidence against him. While some would say "where there's smoke, there's fire" based on all the reports of scouts wondering if he'll be able to stick at catcher, a lot of that smoke about Martinez moving from behind the plate to first remains from the days where Martinez lacked the catching tools he has developed of late. Looking back, there's not much reason to think that Martinez can't catch over 100 games a year. He did so in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007, managing his usual high offensive numbers in each of those seasons. And while his 2009 splits showed he was much better offensively while playing first, that seems to be more the result of a small sample size than anything else, since other years have shown either even splits between first and catcher, or splits heavily in favor of his offense when catching. With no consistency in the numbers, it is far more likely that where he plays simply isn't a factor in his offense.
But even if where Martinez plays is an issue, or becomes one, is that a deal breaker? If Victor were to move to first or DH for a significant portion of the season, would it be so bad? There's no doubt that exchanging playing time at catcher (the most valuable position) for playing time at 1B/DH (the least) is a big difference. But even if Martinez were to switch positions, he could presumably still act as the backup catcher. Assuming he maintains his offensive production (I'm using a .370 wOBA) and catches only 40 games a year, splitting the rest of the time between 1B and DH, Martinez should still end up being close to a 3 WAR player towards the end of his contract, which would put him around $12 million in value using Fangraphs' valuations. Given how much he'll be worth at the beginning of the contract, accepting what could be a slightly overpaid season at the end of his tenure won't seem so bad.
The Price Tag
But just how slightly overpaid are we talking, here? The biggest name catcher to base a contract around would be Joe Mauer, whenever he signs. Martinez would undoubtedly cost less than Mauer by a fair bit, given Mauer's reputation as a top defensive catcher and his ridiculous 2009 MVP campaign. A better comparison would perhaps be Jorge Posada. While Posada's numbers aren't as consistent as Martinez', they average out to around the same. The Yankees signed him to a 4-year, $52 million contract at 36-years old—quite a bit older than Martinez will be should the Sox extend him this year or resign him after the season—but this is a Yankees contract, and Martinez does not appear to be interested in making the most money he possibly can. A conservative estimate would be a $60 million over 4 years, while he best we could hope for would probably be $39 million over 3 years.
At $13 million a year, Martinez would almost certainly turn out to be a great value over the course of his contract. At $15 million, things start to get a lot closer, but either way it's unlikely that any extension will be one of those contracts the team will come to regret later like Lowell's. But will it get done? It's hard to say. Silverman suggests that the Sox might be reluctant to commit to a catcher until Mauer gets sewn up long term, and if that takes too long to get done, Martinez has stated he won't talk about an extension once the season has begun. On the other hand, the Sox have been reluctant to get involved in bidding wars since the Mark Teixeira fiasco, and Mauer would invariably be a bidding war (even if the Yankees don't get involved, I would be surprised if the Mets did not). And they are even more reluctant to give out incredibly long deals. All things considered, I would be surprised if the Sox let Mauer's availability be a factor in anything other than negotiations.
A Matter of Time and Timing
For the Sox, though, a few million dollars in annual salary isn't likely to matter nearly as much as how long they're paying him for.. Before the Lowell signing, the Red Sox weren't fans of signing guys past a certain point. Since their fears proved to be largely correct, they can only be more cautious. But Martinez isn't looking for a short-term commitment.
"I came to the place where a lot of players dream to come and a lot of players wish to play here in Boston. So I'm here, I do really want to stay here and hopefully end my career in Boston."
If that means he wants a 5 or 6 year deal and no trade protection, then we can probably put a lid on the extension talks right now. The front office is all about flexibility when it comes to free agents, and even 4 years could be stretching it. This is not a group that will say "Well, it's just one year". Theo sets limits, and then sticks to them. If the line he draws in the sand isn't good enough for Martinez, then he could end up going the way of Bay.
No matter how many years and how many millions of dollars, it seems unlikely that any reasonable Victor Martinez deal will turn out to be anything worse than a small overpay, even if he ends up being a back-up catcher/DH for the majority of it. While some might want to see Martinez catch a full season with the Sox before locking him up, they also have to consider the risk of what a tremendous Martinez season would do to negotiations. Maybe he keeps up his 2nd half performance from last year, and all-of-a-sudden the Sox are staring down a marquee free agent who can not only demand more money, but a 5th year! Perhaps even Martinez can be swayed by the almighty dollar if he starts hearing big offers from desperate teams. As much as Sox fans may want to talk about Exposito, or Wagner, or Federowicz, the catching position for the Red Sox is still a huge question mark without Martinez. And one that will not easily be filled if they let him walk.
During the last offseason, Theo Epstein employed a plan of "low-risk, high-reward", signing reclamation project pitchers to small contracts in hopes they would return to their formerly dominant forms. It didn't work out, no, but it was still a fundamentally solid plan. Victor Martinez represents a different kind of low-risk, high-reward player. He will carry an 8-digit salary, yes. But there's little risk of him significantly underperforming that salary, and the potential reward is locking up a top-hitting catcher through 2014. When the risk of waiting until after 2011 is of a possible return to the dismal catching situation the Sox were in just a year ago, the stakes are too high. The Red Sox have less than 2 months left to extend Victor Martinez before they are just another name in the pack. Best get started in a hurry.