The Joe Mauer signing shook the baseball world. Here was a small market team, ranked 24th in payroll in 2009, giving a catcher the fourth-largest contract in Major League Baseball history.
It has ramifications throughout the game, but there was a notable ripple effect in the Red Sox clubhouse the day the news broke. Victor Martinez, about to embark on his first full season as the Boston catcher, now faces the prospect of becoming the best player at the position on the free-agent market if he and the Sox do not agree on a contract extension.
Regardless of if and when those negotiations take place, Martinez is planted — at least for one full season — in the No. 3 hole and is responsible for catching one of the best staffs in baseball. It?s no small task, and before he makes himself a lot of money, he will be a factor in many wins.
A standout season from the 31-year-old will go a long way toward taking Boston back to the mountaintop.
Martinez made general manager Theo Epstein look pretty good when the backstop scorched American League pitching following the trade which brought him over from Cleveland at the deadline. He hit .336 with the Sox and was an instant fit in the clubhouse.
And his ability to shine in a Red Sox uniform allowed the club to remedy two black holes in their lineup.
Not only was there a savior for the increasingly awkward ?What do we do with Jason Varitek?? situation, but Martinez instantly plugged the all-important third spot in the lineup, which had become unstable for the first time in years when David Ortiz took months to get going.
For the better part of five years, Ortiz was a roadblock for opposing pitchers while nestled in the three-hole. Before 2009, the designated hitter batted .300 with 176 home runs and 559 RBI in that spot. He was at just .198 with one home run and 18 RBI in that role when manager Terry Francona finally dropped him in the lineup last year.
In Martinez, the Sox gained a switch-hitter that allowed Varitek?s at-bats to be picked and chosen and Ortiz to shoulder less of the load, batting fifth or even lower. The results were instantaneous. In the four months before Martinez arrived, the Sox had monthly team batting averages no better than .275 but as low as .260 and .245. In August and September, the club hit .275 and .277, respectively.
In those first four months, Boston scored an average of 5.16 runs per game. With Martinez, a .299 career hitter, in the fold in August and September, it produced an average of 5.61 — a significant spike.
So we know what the four-time All-Star does to a lineup which, while potent, had occasional lapses last season. Remember, however, that this is a team built on run prevention — Martinez will get just as much love in Fenway Park if he can figure out a way to limit opponents? running games as he will wrapping one around Pesky's Pole.
Indeed, Boston is in dire need of improvement in terms of nailing would-be base stealers. Its success rate of 13 percent last year was historically bad, and Martinez only served to drag it down, throwing out 11 percent of those who ran on him in a Red Sox uniform.
But he owns a 24 percent success rate as a major leaguer and had numbers above 30 percent in 2007 and 2008 (as a comparison, Varitek?s success rate has not topped 24 percent since 2003). If he can get last season?s number up nearer to his career averages, the team?s mission of keeping runs off the board will be a bit easier to fulfill and make him, once again, the remedy for another team-wide woe.
While Victor Martinez could be playing elsewhere in a year, his chances of improving Boston in a few keys areas could make the club the team to beat.
From now until Opening Day, NESN.com will run down 25 things that need to happen for the Red Sox to win the World Series.
March 25: Pitchers need to hold runners better.