Victor Martinez is on his way to becoming the new catcher for the Tigers, leaving Boston with a monstrous hole to fill.
For all the talk of him declining as a defensive catcher, Martinez was a switch-hitting, middle-of-the-lineup force, a highly respected partner to every pitcher on that staff and a clubhouse stalwart. Although his time in Boston lasted just about 16 months, he had an impact that figured to force the Red Sox’ hand to bring him back, especially when the in-house replacement options are unproven. General manager Theo Epstein said less than two weeks ago that re-signing Martinez would be his “first choice” to fill the catcher position in 2011.
Apparently whatever impact Martinez had did not allay the fears of the front office that a long-term deal to a nearly 32-year-old catcher was a risk. That’s now up to Detroit to find out, and Epstein will be satisfied with what should be two high draft picks as compensation.
The signing comes as no surprise. The Tigers have been incredibly aggressive this offseason and had been linked to Martinez since the summer. They have an unbalanced lineup featuring MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera and a steep decline thereafter. Martinez is a perfect fit.
What stands out is the fact that the length and amount of the contract does not seem like such a harrowing proposition for the Sox. Not that Martinez is quite the commodity that Joe Mauer is, but Mauer’s annual salary of $23 million established a benchmark that all other star catchers would be judged. The fact that Martinez was nearly on par with Mauer or better in many offensive categories this year suggests the $10.5 million gap in their annual salaries is a bit much. Wouldn’t the Sox be willing to offer $13 million a year or more for a guy that has the potential to transform a lineup? Could the defensive liabilities and the age of Martinez mean that much to the Red Sox’ front office?
The other end of the negotiation involves the length of the deal. According to WEEI’s Alex Speier, Boston was not willing to go to a fourth year to retain Martinez. Another source said they were, but that it was for only $42 million, $8 million less than Detroit offered. The front office feared that the back end of a deal that long might result in some painful paychecks.
On the surface that appears to be an odd stance. Martinez is exactly the kind of player that would seem to command a fourth or even fifth year at a favorable price, despite his age. His versatility would allow him to fill multiple roles in those final years. He can play first base. He can serve as your designated hitter. He can catch a game here and there. And his bat, which shows absolutely no wear and tear (he had a .313/.368/.497/.865 line in 183 games with the Red Sox) might be better off with fewer games behind the plate.
Boston made Martinez a two-year offer this summer that seemed to upset the four-time All-Star. Perhaps, that was the point at which Martinez turned his attention to other possible suitors. He positively raked in the wake of that offer, hitting .314 with 11 homers and 40 RBIs in the final two months alone. It was, for all intents and purposes, a picture-perfect contract push, but apparently not enough for the hometown team to go that extra mile.
One other factor in the Martinez departure is what it does to Boston’s other big free agent. Adrian Beltre is a quiet guy but seemed to love his little corner of the clubhouse, just a few lockers from Martinez and their pal Marco Scutaro. The sight of Martinez rubbing Beltre’s head after the third baseman whacked another home run became one of the great images of the 2010 Red Sox and also made it clear that Beltre had a brother in the fold. It’s purely speculative that Beltre would lean towards another team simply because Martinez is gone, but it cannot hurt to have as many friends around when you pick and choose where you want to play next.
Epstein said Beltre was his first choice at third base, echoing the sentiment he held for Martinez. He also expressed confidence in alternative options, such as handing the keys to Jarrod Saltalamacchia and letting him be your full-time starter behind the plate, and/or moving Kevin Youkilis to third base if and when Beltre leaves.
At least one of those alternatives has become a reality. We now await what’s next.