Friday, November 30, 2012

Russell Martin vs. Matt Morris, cage match

By Dejan Kovacevic | Trib Total Media columnist
November 29, 2012
The Pirates have agreed to terms with free-agent catcher Russell Martin on a two-year contract worth $17 million, according to multiple outlets.
I’ve already made my feelings clear on Martin, but to repeat: He batted .211/.311.403 last season for the Yankees, despite playing at a hitter-friendly ballpark, and he experienced a sixth consecutive year of offensive decline. He batted 18 points lower than Clint Barmes, just five points better than Rod Barajas.
To point out that Martin is a defensive upgrade over Barajas is an insult to the concept of upgrades. Martin is good, not great, behind the plate. Barajas was good at game-calling and receiving, horrific at throwing out baserunners.
Any of this have a familiar feel?
Flash back to 2007, when Bob Nutting had already been months into digging behind the scenes to uncover what was wrong with Dave Littlefield’s work. (And yeah, that would take months on volume alone.) By the time the trading deadline rolled around that summer and the team was sagging, it was … not entirely clear that Littlefield would be fired, but it was getting there.
Then, Matt Morris.
Littlefield insanely assumed Morris’ entire remaining contract from the giddy Giants — a guaranteed $13 million over the rest of 2007 and all of 2008 — and sent away an actual useful player, outfielder Rajai Davis,to boot. Morris was 33, had visibly been on the decline for nearly a year, and he’d have to be released the following summer by the new management team.
Now, here were again, with Nutting just having conducted an emasculating, embarrassing investigation of this Frank Coonelly/Neal Huntington/Kyle Stark front office, then going public to announce that those gentlemen would have to change the very basis of their modus operandi in the minors. These guys are hanging by a much thinner thread than Littlefield was at the time of Morris.
Sure enough, here comes a monster deal — by Pittsburgh standards — for a light-hitting catcher on the decline. A franchise record, actually. Most money ever paid to a free agent in the Pirates’ 127 years.
I don’t doubt that Martin will be a better performer for the Pirates than Morris, so I’m not literally comparing the acquisitions on a head-to-head basis. I also don’t doubt that Martin will be better than Barajas, if only marginally. If nothing else, he’s young enough at 30 that he’ll still be able to perform as well defensively as he has in the past.
But let’s not pretend this transaction was anything other than what it was: An overpriced desperation move that’s going to hurt the Pirates in more ways than one.
Let’s first remember that the foundation of this move is that Tony Sanchez has been a major disappointment. Sanchez, taken No. 4 overall in the 2009 draft, was the only first-rounder the Pirates took from 2008-11 out of the top two, and not coincidentally the only one that has veered off top-prospect status. By putting down $17 million, this management team has essentially acknowledged what it thinks of Sanchez in 2013 and 2014. Sanchez is 25 years old. If he takes three years to be ready, he’ll be washed up before arrival.
This, as with so much of what’s wrong with the Pirates, begins with the draft and development.
Now, let’s look at the immediate future, beginning with today. This is the date on which teams must tender arbitration-eligible players. The most likely surprise candidate for a non-tender is Jeff Karstens. Karstens is no Cy Young guy, but the arbitration barometers I’ve seen show he’s projected to get about $3.8 million. That’s a very good price even for 15-17 quality starts.
If Karstens is out, it takes rudimentary math to see that this Martin contract contributed to that decision.
And never mind Jason Grilli or Joel Hanrahan, the vital back-end of the bullpen. Grilli’s a free agent, Hanrahan’s an extensive arbitration guy.
The team doesn’t have all that much room on payroll, even though Nutting is taking it up into the range of about $70 million.
This Martin signing could be it.
So, who should the Pirates have gotten to catch?
The easy answer is to say Michael McKenry, whose extrapolated plate appearances give him numbers comparable to Martin. But that wouldn’t have been all that attractive, either.
The real answer goes right back to the foundation: This management team should have, over the course of five-plus years and $52 million in drafts and multiple trades and free-agent signings, come up with a better alternative than to feel motivated to go this way. They should have had enough pitching prospects that they could trade one or two for a good catcher. They should have found and instructed a catcher or two or five on their own.
I’ve had people writing to me about how the Pirates can’t win, how they’re either ripped for not spending or ripped when they do spend.
Not by me. To me, spending has never been the issue, and I’ve consistently written that for two years now. Rather, it’s been that the money Nutting’s given them has been spent abysmally. On the draft and in free agency. I’ve pounded that issue again and again and again.
And here it is yet again.
Did you see Jerry Crasnick’s write-up on the Pirates for ESPN yesterday?
In there, in addition to another team’s evaluator calling the Pirates’ development habits “bizarre,” you’ll find this quote from Huntington: “As an organization, we had the worst in record in all of baseball in September of 2010, and in September of 2012 we were playing meaningful games with playoff implications. That’s a pretty good two-year turnaround if you shift the lens.”
No. No, actually, it isn’t. Because the same management team that dug that 57-105 hole is the one still in place. You don’t get extra credit for exhuming your own cadavers.
Just like you don’t get any credit whatsoever for having to spend $17 million on a .211-hitting catcher because five years worth of player acquisitions were overall failures.
Just like you don’t get any credit for finding a catcher who hits five points better than one of the worst-hitting catchers we’ve ever seen in this city.

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