Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Martin leaving isn't the problem; not signing anyone else will be

Photo: John Bazemore/The Associated Press

Pirate apologists were shouting it from atop Mt. Washington the minute catcher Russell Martin signed a five-year, $82 million contract with Toronto: You can't give Russell Martin a five-year contract!

Why not? Somebody did.
The Pirates never had a chance to keep Martin. He signed a two-year deal hoping to strike gold in free agency after a good run in Pittsburgh. When Martin started putting together a career season in 2014, his departure was guaranteed. Had Martin cooled off, the Pirates might have had a slim chance. But he didn’t.
Martin did get too much. Too long, too.
Had the Pirates signed Martin to the contract he got from Toronto, it would have become a millstone around their neck after a couple seasons.
But, from the Pirates’ perspective, the pact’s true worth wouldn’t involve what happens over its entirety. The value is found in having a chance to win during the next two years. That’s what you pay $82 mil for. Anything beyond is a bonus.
If you can’t afford to eat a bad contract for a few seasons, you can’t afford to own a big-league baseball team. You won’t win, either.
Bob Nutting can afford to own a big-league baseball team. He is MLB’s 10th richest owner. Nutting is a billionaire. Pirate revenue is through the roof.
Nutting could afford to sign Martin. Nutting chose not to.
Martin’s arm, pitch-framing and bedside manner with pitchers duly noted, he’s not the best bet offensively. This year’s numbers were way beyond Martin’s recent and career stats, and are not likely to be repeated. He only played 111 games. He’s 31, an old age at baseball’s most physically demanding position. In the American League, Martin can DH.
Not retaining Martin is understandable.
Not retaining anybody is the problem.
If Nutting takes the cash he could have used to sign Martin and pockets it, that confirms the reasonable perception that he sees the Pirates as purely a money-grab.
Nutting should take that cash and use it to keep Francisco Liriano.
Liriano won’t cost near as much, or demand near as long. If the Pirates keep Liriano, they have a solid top of the rotation even if Edinson Volquez walks: Liriano, Gerrit Cole and recycled hero A.J. Burnett.
Charlie Morton returns from hip surgery around June 1. The Pirates can patchwork with Vance Worley, Jeff Locke and Brandon Cumpton. Maybe they sign another reclamation project for pitching coach Ray Searage to resurrect. Maybe Jameson Taillon comes back strong from Tommy John surgery. Perhaps prospect Nick Kingham arrives by mid-season.
Liriano, Cole and Burnett would give the Pirates a solid base. Those three anchoring the rotation could help the Pirates legit contend for a third straight playoff spot.
Without Liriano, it’s a garbage rotation. Starting over, to a large degree.
If you own a sports team, you have got to be able to deal with a revolving door. But those going out can’t always be better than those coming in.
The return of Burnett is steeped in irony. It’s a good move by the Pirates. They got a good player at a position of need for a cheap price.
But, upon signing with the Pirates, Burnett fairly boasted about coming back for less money – just a year after he left for more money.
Fans blasted Burnett a year ago because he couldn’t be trusted to win the big game, or even pitch it. Now they can’t wait for Burnett to pitch the next big game.
The Pirates leaked that Burnett had a big blow-up with Manager Clint Hurdle when Hurdle bypassed Burnett to pitch Cole in Game 5 at St. Louis to climax the 2013 NL Division Series. Now Pirate management crows about what a positive influence Burnett is.
So many people did a quick 180 on Burnett, it would be a wonder if nobody got dizzy and passed out.
Burnett says he came back to win. But it’s very likely that the 2015 Pirates will be considerably worse on paper than the 2013 team, which he left, and the 2014 team, which really could have used him.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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