No one said the Cubs rebuild was going to be easy.
While the organization has completed the tear down portion of the Cubs reconstruction project, the rebuild is still in the process — one that took a bit of a hit on Monday with the Blue Jays outbidding the Cubs for the services of free agent catcher Russell Martin.
The Jays will reportedly get Martin on a five-year deal worth $82 million for his age 32-36 seasons. A price too rich and a year too many for the Cubs, who have cleared a copious amount of salary, but don’t necessarily feel inclined to waste it.
So, what are the Cubs missing out on?
Offensively, it’s hard to believe that Martin was going to repeat his .290/.402/.430/.832 slash line from 2014, especially considering his .336 BABIP is likely unsustainable (based on a .289 career clip). Even without some lucky hitting, Martin’s offensive value comes in the form of a career 11.6 percent walk rate — which was in line with the 12.8 percent clip he posted in 2014.
Defensively, the Cubs lost out on a Gold Glove caliber defender, a quality pitch framer, a good game caller and a veteran leader coming off two seasons as a key cog for the young, but playoff-tested Pirates. Even if his offense was to dip to league average levels, his steady defense brought the kind of value that could have softened the blow for any offensive letdown.
Based on the concept that 1 WAR is worth approximately $7 million, the Jays are paying Martin to be an 11 WAR player over the life of the contract. It’s not impossible, but it’s not without its risks.
Since 1969, there have been nine catchers who have been worth 11 WAR in their age 32-36 seasons, according to baseball-reference.com. The comparable catchers include Jorge Posada (17.5, 2004-08), Ivan Rodriguez (13.4, 2004-08), Carlos Ruiz (12.2, 2011-14) and Jason Varitek (11.5, 2004-08).
I can’t help but think Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer probably saw a little bit of Varitek (or Posada, for that matter) in Martin.
Martin is coming off a two-year stint in which he was worth 9.9 WAR — or 4.95 WAR per season. Let the record show 4-win catchers don’t grow on trees.
The Cubs have had 10 catchers produce 4-WAR seasons in their history, three of which have occurred in my 28 years on this planet (Rick Wilkins in 1993, 6.6; Welington Castillo, 4.5, 2013; Jody Davis, 4.0, 1986). Heck, catchers with 3-WAR seasons seem rare, too. The Cubs have 15 of those in their history, nine of which came between 1902 and 1936. This organization has not had a four-year run with a catcher worth on average of 3-WAR per season since Randy Hundley was worth 12.0 WAR from 1966-69.
Lost in all this is the Cubs losing out on a chance to upgrade and do so at a position without simultaneously blocking a high level prospect. So, to stabilize that position as they let Kyle Schwarber develop at a normal pace in the minors would’ve put the team ahead of the curve for a change.
Alas, they will move on without Martin in the fold and reassign their focus toward acquiring the high-end pitching the organization so desperately needs at the big league level. I mean, the Cubs didn’t clear salary space and create financial flexibility to end up with mid-level talent, right?
The Cubs return a decent catcher in Welington Castillo, whose offense took a bit of a hit in 2014 with a .237/.298/.389/.686 slash line and 89 OPS+ after posting a .271/.345/.404/.749 slash line and 105 OPS+ in 618 plate appearances from 2012-13.
Castillo posted an astounding 4.5 WAR in 2013, but it’s a number sandwiched between a 1.2 in 2012 and a 1.8 in 2014. His defense was adequate, while his pitch framing skills were deemed as poor — costing his team 24.3 runs, per StatCorner, which was the second worst in baseball.
And believe it or not, that stuff matters — at least until we get the robot umpires calling balls and strikes that we (as fans) so truly deserve.
Unfortunately, for the Cubs, the rest of the free agent catching pool is shallow. So much so, A.J. Pierzynski is at the top of the list. If you’re not a fan of the list, I don’t blame you.
The Cubs could target Miguel Montero in a trade with the Diamondbacks. He is owed $40 million over the next three seasons. You can see where some might suggest Montero as an alternative to Martin. He owns a 9.7 percent walk rate and is known as a good receiver and pitch framer (saving his team 24 runs above average ranked best in baseball via StatCorner).
If the Cubs can land the left-handed hitting Montero, they could put together a quality short-term platoon with Castillo.
I imagine new manager Joe Maddon could take advantage of Montero’s .272/.356/.442/.797 slash line and 10.7 percent walk rate against righties and team it with Castillo’s .306/.373/.472/.845 slash line against lefties.
It’s only Nov. 18 and the Cubs have found a way to stay steadily in the headlines. The next step is to have a headline be a result of a transaction, rather than another missed opportunity.