For the last two weeks, Russell Martin has been one of the hottest commodities in baseball. Easily the best catcher on the free agent market, Martin was linked to numerous teams before signing a five year, $82 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday. The deal will pay Martin an average of $16.4 million-per-year through his age-36 season in 2019.
Lost amid yesterday's hubbub — that Giancarlo Stanton fellow garnered a few pageviews himself — was a move deciding another catcher's future. The Tigers exercised Alex Avila's club option for the 2015 season, locking in his salary at a cool $5.4 million. Avila will be a free agent after next season unless the two sides agree to a long-term extension beforehand.
While the Tigers were never mentioned as one of the clubs in the Martin sweepstakes, there were many fans who wanted to see the club bring in the former Pittsburgh Pirates backstop. Avila has become one of the more maligned players on the Tigers' roster, and his concussion issues have only added fuel to the fire.
The Tigers were better off to resist temptation. Martin may have seemed like the shiny new toy, a surefire upgrade over Avila's steady presence. But the financial flexibility that Avila's option provides opens up opportunities to fix holes elsewhere on the roster. Additionally, the two have provided similar offensive numbers throughout their careers. Martin has a career .754 OPS to Avila's .752, while Avila has the superior wRC+, 107 to 106.
There is a stark difference in their WAR totals, however. Martin has been worth 16 WAR to Avila's 10.1 since Avila became a starter in 2010. Martin is widely regarded as one of the best pitch framers in baseball. He has thrown out 32 percent of baserunners in his career, and gunned down 73 potential base stealers in the past two seasons alone. There's no doubt about it: he's good.
But how good? Is Martin worth $16.4 million per season, especially with the way catchers age? Martin has been worth an average of 3.4 WAR per season in his nine year career. He accumulated 9.4 WAR in two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Steamer has projected him for another 3.8 WAR in 2015. Even with some regression, he should still be a solid two-plus win catcher.
What kind of value does this provide, particularly at his new salary? The going rate for a win above replacement -- 1 WAR -- is somewhere between $7-8 million on the open market. If we split the difference and call it $7.5 million per WAR, Martin will need to put up 11 WAR over his five seasons in Toronto to provide fair market value for his deal.
Is this feasible? Sure. Martin's excellent walk rate, decent power, and transition from one of the most pitcher friendly parks in baseball to one of the most homer-prone should help ease the aging curve. Eleven wins over five seasons is barely over two WAR per year, something that Martin has accomplished in seven of his nine MLB seasons.
Why didn't the Tigers pull the trigger on Martin, then? Payroll issues aside, Martin doesn't provide the surplus value that Avila does. In 2014, Avila was worth 2.1 WAR while making just $4.15 million. Assuming the same $7.5 million per win that we used in the example above, that gives Avila an expected value of almost $16 million, or roughly $11.5 million over what he actually made. This overage is known as surplus value, and is a good way of measuring how much a team was able to squeeze out of its payroll.
If Avila is able to repeat his 2014 performance in 2015, his surplus value will decrease to $10.4 million. Meanwhile, Martin will need to accumulate over 3.5 WAR to achieve the same surplus value. These respective expectations aren't unreasonable for either catcher in 2015, but we would be hard pressed to believe that Martin will still be a three or four win catcher in 2018. We don't know what the Tigers will be doing at this point, but it's feasible that they could be collecting even more surplus value from James McCann, who would still only be in his first season of arbitration eligibility at that point.
With expensive players like Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera taking up a large percentage of the payroll for the foreseeable future, the Tigers will need players like Avila and McCann to provide as much value as possible at their respective salaries. Signing Russell Martin may have given them the best option available, but Avila's solid production at a reduced rate was the better move for the budget-conscious Tigers.