Complex Situation: Mauer Signed, Martinez Next?

Baseball’s preseason got a nice mid-March news boost yesterday when the Twins and MVP catcher Joe Mauer agreed to a massive 8-year, $184 million contract.  Had Mauer hit free agency, he would have been one of the bigger names on the open market in years, and there is little doubt that the Red Sox and the Yankees would probably have been involved in the bidding (Rays’ manager Joe Madden today quipped, “On behalf of us, Toronto and Baltimore, we’d really like to thank the Twins for giving him a long-term deal.”).

Now Mauer’s off the market and the Sox have their own impending free agent at catcher in Victor Martinez, who was acquired last summer and added some serious punch to the club’s lineup down the stretch.  Between catcher and first base, Martinez hit .336/.405/.507 for Boston and was a mainstay batting third in the lineup.

Martinez provided a spark for Boston last summer. Now free agency looms.

But there’s been little word out of camp regarding talks of an extension with Martinez.  Last month, he spoke quite candidly to the press, saying that he wanted to stay in Boston, that the ball was in the Red Sox’ court, and that he understood that the club was probably interested in what would happen with Mauer.

We know Mauer’s fate.  As such, it seems pertinent that Boston take care of the catching position for their club going forward.

So what’s the issue?

There is speculation that the Sox’ front office wants to see how Martinez holds up catching over 100 games.  In 2009, he caught only 83, and defensive scouting reports have him as average at best.  All the same, he developed great chemistry with Jon Lester and especially Clay Buchholz, and he has caught full-time in the past.

Martinez’s demands are not clear, but speculation at the fabled Sons of Sam Horn message board has a potential contract in the 4 year, $40-60 million range.  Given the lack of top-flight offensive catchers across baseball, this does not sound obscene.  The Sox were willing to offer Jason Bay, a horrid defender, the same contract, and his production in left field is considerably closer to the left field mean than is Martinez’s at catcher, though the counterargument is that Martinez plays a much more important defensive position.  All the same, it would appear as though perhaps the Sox are legitimately worried about whether or not Martinez can literally last a full season catching.  This is where the analysis gets tricky.

While his flexibility is an asset for which to credit V-Mart, there’s little doubt that he is most valuable as a catcher.  The thought is that as a DH or first baseman, his offensive output is considerably more ordinary, and he suddenly would not be worth the contract it would cost to extend him.  Perhaps this is true.  However, in 2009, Martinez posted an OPS of .783 as a catcher.  As a first-baseman, the number ballooned to .942.  It was higher as a DH, but that was in very minimal playing time.

This would give hope that perhaps if he got out from behind the plate, he may produce more, and thereby offset the earlier positional-value based criticism.  It’s tough to tell if this is more trend or chance, though, as 2009 was the first year that he split time so freely between the two positions.  In 2007 and 2008, he hit better as a catcher, but he did not see ample time at first base.  The sample size is most significant in 2009, but the question is whether or not 2009 is enough of a sample size on its own right.

If it is, the decision becomes significantly easier: should Martinez be a .900 OPS type of player when he’s not crouched in the dirt, he has value even if he can’t catch as a David Ortiz replacement.  If, however, he is likely to be a .825-.850 type of guy regardless of his position, then he probably only has value as a catcher, and if he can’t catch full-time, then it all blows up.

Then the Sox should wait until the season starts and see if Martinez can either catch a full slate or, if not, if he produces better when he has a chance to play first base or serve as a DH, right?  Well, wrong — they can’t.  Victor won’t talk contract once the season starts.  So, they need to either commit to a situation now that they have not fully assessed, or risk Martinez seriously upping his value this season and having to pay a premium — or worse, getting into a bidding war, perhaps with the Yankees — when the season’s over.

And that’s why this one’s so difficult to assess.

-Adam Vaccaro can be followed on Twitter.

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