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The first signs of spring have arrived: Yahoo! Fantasy Baseball registration opened, the “Truck” left and pitchers and catchers reported, my copy of Baseball Prospectus 2010 arrived, and speculation has started on another pending free agent who doesn’t want to negotiate during the season but wants to stay in Boston.
Victor Martinez recently discussed the situation with the Boston Herald:
“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.”
Like those with Jason Bay last year, the negotiations with Martinez could shape the look of the Boston Red Sox for years to come. Can Martinez prove he is capable of being a catcher full-time? Do the Sox have kids on the farm who could replace him? And what about Joe Mauer?
In his six years as a full-time player, Martinez has been remarkably consistent, outside of an injury-plagued 2008 campaign.
Having celebrated his 31st birthday in December, Martinez will be seeking what is likely to be his last big contract. As a player who has admitted to not wanting to be a free agent, Martinez throws a wrench in the normal negotiation process. Should the Red Sox fail to make a deal before the season starts, Martinez will wait until the fall to begin talks about extending his time in Boston.
One concern the Red Sox may have about their starting catcher is his decreasing time spent behind the plate. After catching 142 games for the Indians in 2005, Martinez has seen his time behind the plate dwindle as first Cleveland and then Boston attempted to keep their star backstop fresh. Martinez caught 133 games for Cleveland in 2006, 121 in 2007, 55 while injured in 2008, and 85 during time with the Red Sox and Indians in 2009. For the Indians last season, Martinez appeared at catcher 52 times, first base 47 times and had three appearances as a DH. After the trade to Boston, Martinez caught 33 times and played first base 23 times. This was partly due to the injuries sustained by Mike Lowell, as well as a concern about Victor Martinez’s abilities as a defensive catcher. Martinez caught just 14 percent of base-stealers last season, while the league average was 25 percent.
The big question facing the Red Sox this offseason is what to do with all their free agents. Josh Beckett, David Ortiz, Mike Lowell and Victor Martinez, among others, will see their contracts come to an end after 2010. Obviously, Joe Mauer is looming on the horizon as the premier free agent if he does not reach a deal with the Minnesota Twins. The estimates for Mauer’s next contract are impressive – in the neighborhood of ten years or $200 million or both – as an enormous contract is guaranteed regardless of where he signs. While the Red Sox will take a long look at Minnesota’s All-Star catcher, assuming he reaches free agency, the cost will be steep. Personally I’d like Mauer to stay with the Twins and be that increasingly rare one-team superstar. Wherever Joe Mauer ends up, Victor Martinez will the second-best catcher entering free agency.
One thing the Red Sox will certainly consider in negotiating with Martinez is the decline of Jason Varitek. From 2003 to 2005, Varitek’s age 31, 32, and 33 seasons the catcher put up OPSs of .863, .872 and .856. Varitek clubbed 25, 18, and 22 home runs during those years, a tremendous output for a catcher. After the 2004 season, the Red Sox signed Varitek to a four year $40 million deal. After his banner 2005 campaign where he was won a Silver Slugger, Gold Glove and even grabbed a few MVP votes, Varitek’s offensive production fell sharply. The remaining three years of the deal saw Varitek compile OPS’s of .725, .787, and .672 with an additional .703 in 2009, the first year of what turned into a two-year deal after Varitek picked up his player option for 2010. While 2007 was a rebound year and injuries limited him in 2006, the Red Sox paid a hefty price for his 2005 season, the last year he put up his typical offensive statistics.
Given the Red Sox hesitation in handing out long-term deals, it is hard to imagine Martinez manning home plate for five seasons. With his nearest competition, Mauer, likely getting an eight to ten-year pact, would Martinez take four years and would the Red Sox go that long? After losing Jason Bay over potential health concerns and lowering their offer to compensate, will Martinez be treated the same way because of his declining appearances at catcher? With Kevin Youkilis still able to play third base, Martinez could always shift from catcher to first and still provide a a strong bat, making him more flexible than Jason Bay.
Luis Exposito hit .337/.371/.489/.860 in 97 plate appearances at Double A this year while putting up a .271/.329/.424/.753 line at Single A for the bulk of the season, 319 plate appearances. If Exposito can build on this success over a full season, the Red Sox may very well consider filling the catcher vacancy from within and retain Josh Beckett for a contract similar to what John Lackey received, and continue their focus on pitching and defense and the bridge to 2012.