With free agency ready to begin, the position player the Cubs have been connected to for several months, Russell Martin, is about to hit the market.
When the front office stated their goals for the off-season, it was before Joe Maddon became available. If the Cubs land Maddon, as expected, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer could alter their plans for the winter based on what Maddon has seen and the conversations with him about the team and organization. But what is known at this point is the Cubs would like to add leadership to the young clubhouse with veterans that know how to play the game in either everyday roles or on the bench. With limited spots available in the projected line-up, one position the Cubs could look to upgrade is catcher.
The Cubs like Russell Martin, at least according to multiple reports, and have also publicly supported Welington Castillo recently. The front office believes in Castillo and thinks he could be the frontline catcher he was projected to be when Epstein and Hoyer took over baseball operations three years ago.
“I really believe in Wely [Welington Castillo],” Jed Hoyer said in September. “I think there’s a really good full season in there. Hopefully he can get to that place where he can be consistent all year, but he certainly worked hard at it and he’s a really good kid. His name doesn’t get mentioned a lot when you talk about our established young veterans, but I think he can be in that mix as well.”
Russell Martin played his way to a big payday this winter. Martin had a career year at the plate (.290/.402/.430, 20 doubles, 11 home runs, .832 OPS) and defensively he was among the best in the game. But at age 31 (turns 32 in February), how long can he sustain the level of play that he turned in for the first time in his career?
Latest guestimates on what Martin will sign for this winter have ranged from a three to five year deal with an AAV of $13-15 million. Buster Olney thinks Martin will ink a four-year contract for “about $50-60 million”. And Olney reported the Cubs are one of the teams that could make a run at him this winter.
An argument could be made that signing Russell Martin to the type of contract he is expected to receive has as much risk, if not more, than handing out a six or seven-year contract to a top of the rotation-type arm like Jon Lester or Max Scherzer.
As Buster Olney reported, “there have been numerous examples of catchers who hit a physical wall between the ages of 32 and 34, as years of work take their toll.” Olney thinks Martin’s “strong physical condition and athleticism could play in his favor, because at the back end of his next contract, he could be used at other positions.” But if Martin is not catching, he would seem to have little to no value for the Cubs beyond a one, two-year contract.
During the season it was believed Martin could sign a three-year contract that would carry him through his age 35-season. Now the question is, according to Olney, if a team will go to five years to land Martin, instead of the four-year deal that was once believed to be “the tipping point for Martin.” Any team signing Martin to a five-year contract would have to be in the America League and willing to receive very little from him at the plate over the last two to three seasons of a five-year contract.
Another factor for the Cubs in regards to Russell Martin is Kyle Schwarber. If the Cubs think Schwarber is the catcher of the future, it wouldn’t make much sense to make a long-term commitment to Russell Martin. Schwarber impressed the front office and both Tim Cossins and Mark Johnson during fall instructs with the improvements he made defensively behind the plate. With Schwarber possibly beginning the season at Double-A Tennessee (best case) or at least at High-A Myrtle Beach, he could be ready for the big leagues at some point during the 2016 season.
The Cubs are looking to add impact talent from outside the organization. And the pursuit of Joe Maddon confirms the front office feels the organization is ready to take the next step and focus on winning games at the big league level. While Russell Martin could possibly help the Cubs win games next season, Theo Epstein said the team would not sell-out to win in 2015.
Without a doubt Martin set himself up for a huge contract this winter. But if the front office sticks to The Plan, it is really difficult to see where Russell Martin would fit in.