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Red Sox free agent targets: Russell Martin

Catcher is not Boston's first priority, but if Russell Martin's market proves reasonable, they would do well to pick up one of the league's undervalued talents.

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

There's no point in avoiding the elephant in the room, so let's get this out of the way first: Russell Martin is not a perfect fit for the Red Sox' long-term plans. Christian Vazquez is already in the majors, and Blake Swihart is not so far behind him that Martin's contract will be over by the time he is ostensibly "ready" to make the jump himself. If, indeed, Martin were to make his way to Boston, we would be accepting a log jam behind the plate somewhere down the line.

But that doesn't mean that the Red Sox should ignore the top catcher on the market this offseason. Instead, the question becomes whether or not what Martin brings to the plate is worth that log jam.

If we're going off his two years in Pittsburgh, I would say there's no question. In his last two seasons, Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference both peg Martin as being worth just under 10 wins to the Pirates. This from a metric which, while it gives him plenty of credit for playing at a difficult position, does not credit Martin all that much for being one of the best defensive catchers in the game.

This is not exactly the full story of Martin's career, but even if we lump in his late struggles in Los Angeles, Martin holds a career 106 wRC+, and is generally worth about three wins a season on average. Not bad given the aforementioned defensive caveat.

Of course, the rest of the league is not blind to this. By virtue of his excellent defensive skills, Martin is an unusually low-risk signing for a catcher who will be 32 years old in 2015. At his worst, barring injury, he'll be a steady presence behind the plate who makes a pitching staff that much better just by being there. It may not be the easiest sell to any given fanbase if that comes packaged with a .700 OPS and a massive contract, but given the importance of catcher defense, Martin could well be worth the money even if the bat does falter.

And if it doesn't? Then we're talking about an All-Star quality player, even factoring in some BABIP regression.

All of this leads me to believe that the Red Sox will not wind up as the highest bidders for Martin's services if, indeed, they bid at all. The reality of the situation is that, while many other teams would be getting their money's worth from having Martin's glove sans-bat behind the plate, the Red Sox would not. That's because Martin would largely be displacing Christian Vazquez, who brings that same high level of defense, if not the same upside offensively.

That doesn't mean that there's no reason for the Red Sox to want Martin, though. Not at all. Vazquez is a promising player, but could be entirely one-dimensional where Martin is perhaps the most well-rounded catcher in the game. Based on what they did at the plate last year, Martin would be good for some 30 runs more than Vazquez, to say nothing of the fact that Vazquez would now be getting the innings as the backup in place of, well, any other backup catcher. And there are few enough of those who rise above the levels of, say, Kevin Cash.

There are two obvious stumbling blocks: the contract, and Blake Swihart.

Swihart, I think, is where too many people will point, when really he should barely be entering the equation. Swihart is an exciting prospect coming off his best professional season yet, reaching Triple-A Pawtucket in the process. He's also a 22-year-old catcher who has barely seen one thousand professional plate appearances. If there's any position that demands extra seasoning, it's catcher. There's so much more to learn at every step along the way than at any other position. Jason Varitek, for instance, didn't play a full season in the majors until he was already 26, and that year he still only played 86 games.

With Swihart still sitting on three option years, the Red Sox have the ability to delay his arrival for quite a while. And when the situation you're really worried about is having three good players for two roster spots, that's not so much a problem as it is a question of which positive scenario is the best usage of team resources. Meanwhile, the Sox will protect themselves against the very real possibility that Swihart simply doesn't ever get there, as happens with prospects pretty much all the time.

That second hurdle, though, is where things are likely to go awry. It's not that the Red Sox can't afford Martin. Even setting aside pretty large amounts of money for the rotation and third base, the Sox could manage a run at Martin, particularly if Yoenis Cespedes ends up being traded somewhere along the way. But what the Red Sox don't have is as much need as the next team out there. The Red Sox do need to find a catcher to pair with Christian Vazquez, but it's hardly their top priority,

Still, Martin's is a market they should at least be active in. With the veteran catcher expected by many to come in shy of Brian McCann's 5-year, $85 million contract, there's a possibility that he does fall into the Red Sox' price range at the end of the day, even if they're not the team best-equipped to make use of his talents. If indeed that's the case, Martin could actually represent quite the bargain, and a few roster complications down the line would easily be worth the upgrade to the team over the next few years.