Russell Martin had a career year in 2014, and it came at just the perfect time as the free agent figures to see a major payday. Alex Avila was a solid contributor for the Tigers in 2014, compiling 2.1 WAR in 124 games, but, his injury history may lead the Tigers to look at other options behind the plate in 2015 and beyond.
*2015 Steamer Projection
Who is he?
Russell Martin is a 31-year-old right-handed catcher who is reaching free agency after playing some outstanding baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates over the last years after signing a 2-year, $17 million contract. For his career, Martin has posted medium-to-low batting averages, higher on-base percentages fueled by a high walk rate, and decent power. Martin had a career year in 2014, and it came at just the perfect time as the free agent figures to see a major payday. Signing Martin does require the forfeiture of a draft pick, as the Pirates have stated that they will extend him a qualifying offer.
Why should we care?
Simply put, Martin was very good in 2014, and he hasn't been too shabby for his whole career, either. He had the tied-18th highest wRC+ among all batters with minimum 400 plate appearances in 2014, and among catchers, only Devin Mesoraco and Buster Posey were marginally better. On a Tigers team that often had players with marginal on-base percentages at the top of the order, Martin's high walk rate would be a welcome addition. On top of that, Martin carries the reputation of being elite defensively, so this could be one way to upgrade the team's offense, defense, and pitching (via Martin's pitch framing, which saves roughly 0.23 runs per 100 pitches).
A few years ago, it would have been inconceivable that we would be having this conversation. Alex Avila put together a 2011 campaign a 140 wRC+ and an on-base percentage close to .400, but he's been below league average offensively and missed time due to injury each of the last two seasons.
However, unless Avila is traded, he will be back with the Tigers in 2015. The A's have shown how beneficial it can be to have multiple competent catchers; the position is so rigorous that it is impossible for the starter to play every day. Bryan Holaday received 171 plate appearances last year, and Martin would be an enormous upgrade there. Avila, the lefty-swinging college third baseman, could conceivably be the backup catcher and backup third baseman behind the righty Nick Castellanos. If Avila were given a full offseason to prepare to play a few innings at third, this could be one way to prolong his career.
If a team is going to pay a premium in free agency, it is not a bad idea to do it at catcher. It's always possible to find outfielders or relievers for cheap that outperform expectations, but the supply for catchers is much more limited.
Why should we stay away?
Martin will be expensive, and he'll require the forfeiture of a draft pick. The Pirates, a team that generally has a low budget, has said that they are willing to go above their normal limits to resign Martin. On top of that, Martin is the only real starting catcher available in free agency this year, so many other teams will be after him.
As much as Martin's 2014 season should excite teams about signing him, it should also scare teams about the possibility of paying for one outlying year if Martin goes back to his previous good, but not elite, form. From 2009-2012, when Martin was with the Dodgers and Yankees, he was below average offensively, often sporting low batting averages similar to what Tigers fans have seen from Avila these past few years. If the Tigers were guaranteed that he'd put up numbers similar to 2014, he'd be a fantastic signing, but unfortunately, they're guaranteed no such thing.
As nice as it would be to have two real catchers, the Tigers do currently have one who is at least adequate offensively and good defensively, and he will likely be healthy enough to play most days next year. GM Dave Dombrowski has expressed his desire to add another left-handed bat, but signing Martin would be subtracting one from the everyday lineup in 2015.
If the Tigers are more worried about Avila's health than they've let on, they could make a serious run at Martin. Otherwise, it's certainly unlikely as the Pirates will certainly do all they can to re-sign him.