As a switch-hitting catcher with power, Victor Martinez will have plenty of suitors when he reaches free agency this winter.
Unfortunately for Red Sox fans, the Tampa Bay Rays may be one of the teams most interested in acquiring his services.
The Rays are a remarkably well-balanced team, which largely explains why they have the second-best record in the majors despite having the league’s 21st-highest payroll. They steal bases, defend well, have an excellent pitching staff and possess one of the league’s best farm systems too.
But the two things the Rays lack are exactly what Victor Martinez represents — a middle-of-the-order hitter to compliment Evan Longoria, and a catcher who can be relied upon every day.
Longoria is one of the best players in baseball, but he’s left unprotected in the middle of the Rays’ order. Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena are the two most logical choices to flank Longoria, but the former has too little power and the latter is too prone to strikeouts. Plus, both may leave as free agents after the season. B.J. Upton has the talent needed to be an MVP-caliber third hitter, but his maddeningly inconsistent performance usually relegates him to the bottom-third of the Rays’ order.
Adding Martinez, however, would give the Rays one of the best one-two punches in baseball. Martinez’s switch-hitting ability would prevent managers from sending out right-handed specialists to prey on Longoria, and his high on-base percentage would prevent managers from issuing Longoria too many intentional walks as well. Sure, a Longoria-Martinez duo may not be quite as good as Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday or Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, but it would be pretty close.
Martinez would be an enormous improvement behind the plate for the Rays as well. The Rays have received a surprising amount of production from rookie catcher John Jaso, but it’s hard to imagine they feel comfortable trusting him with the starting gig in 2011. They could pray that either Dioner Navarro or Kelly Shoppach rebounds, but would be better off acquiring a new backstop.
The 2011 free agent catcher market is fairly thin, but does provide some incremental upgrades over what the Rays currently have in their organization. A.J. Pierzynski, John Buck and Miguel Olivo all have experience catching every day, and none should command a huge contract.
None can match what Martinez can bring to the table though, and the Rays have expressed interest in V-Mart before. Although it was the Red Sox who acquired the catcher at the 2009 trading deadline, the Rays were rumored to be in active negotiations with the Indians at the time as well.
Martinez could also help the Rays at first base and designated hitter, which may be key if Pena leaves the Rays as a free agent. He’s also a leader in the clubhouse, which will have added importance if Crawford, the team’s stabilizing presence for the better part of the past decade, signs for big money elsewhere.
As a small-market team, the Rays rarely spend big on free agents. They signed Pat Burrell to a two-year, $16 million contract before the 2009 season, but released him earlier in the 2010 campaign, and got little return on their investment.
If the Rays hope to remain a powerhouse in the AL East, however, they cannot sustain the losses of Pena and Crawford without adding any external talent in return.
As good as their young players are, it’s rare that any player fits a team’s needs as exactly as Martinez does for the Rays, and signing him is an opportunity they shouldn’t let pass them by.