The rising price of catchers

In the last week we heard rumors that the Yankees were discussing a multi-year extension with Russell Martin, which would have kept the 29-year old Martin in pinstripes for the next 3 years.  Ultimately, no agreement was reached, and instead Martin will play out 2012 for his agreed-upon 1-year salary.  It sounds like there is mutual desire to keep Martin in New York, but it doesn’t sound like the two parties saw eye-to-eye on the finances.

The topic of extending Martin has been discussed on this blog and elsewhere, with mixed opinions.  Those in favor have argued that Martin is likely to become much more expensive if he hits the free agent market, and that the Yankees likely won’t have a viable replacement available next year.  Those opposed have pointed to Martin’s injury history as cause for concern, as well as the possible availability of better catchers (Mike Napoli, Miguel Montero, Yadier Molina) hitting the market in the same year.

One of those potential targets, Yadier Molina, will not be available next offseason because he signed a 5-year extension with St. Louis reportedly worth between $70-75 million.  This seems like a ton for a player pushing 30 who has only twice in his career achieved a wRC+ greater than 100 (the league average).  Certainly Molina draws a lot of value from his excellent defense, which is evident both according to traditional metrics (though not in 2011, oddly enough) and the all-important eye test.  The Cardinals are also potentially buying high on a career best offensive performance (wRC+ of 123), which could make this deal somewhat of an overpay if Molina’s improvement is not sustained.

So what does Molina’s deal mean for Martin?  They are both strong defensive catchers who have demonstrated that they are capable of providing league average or better offensive performance at a very important position.  Previously, I didn’t think that a Martin extension would exceed $8-10 million per year.  With Molina getting $14-15 million (and as an extension, without free agent leverage), the pricetag for good but not elite catchers has just been raised.

Joe Mauer‘s $23 million annual salary from Minnesota was clearly an anomaly, a huge extension to keep a hometown hero and a player on Hall of Fame trajectory around.  For the next tier of players, Jorge Posada‘s $13 million/year contract was the next highest (that I can recall), though this also included the standard “true Yankee” premium.  Molina’s deal illustrates perhaps that teams (or at least one team) are putting increased emphasis on the value of catcher defense, as they are willing to spend big on a guy who until this season had never been more than a league-average offensive performer.

Martin is not considered to be quite as good defensively as Molina, and his offensive performance lags behind Molina’s 2011 season.  However, with a strong 2012, Martin could find himself earning a salary in the $12 million range annually if the Cardinals’ valuation of Molina was reflective of his market value.  Since few legitimate defensive catchers with good bats hit the market, the bidding could be intense.  This presumably is significantly higher than the price the Yankees were willing to give Martin in an extension.

If those are Russell’s demands, Martin may very well price himself out of New York if the Yankees are serious about trying to get the payroll to $189 million in 2014.  It’s possible that this may not happen if the market is crowded with other catching options, and at present there are some legitimate alternatives.  I can’t imagine Martin earning more than Montero or Napoli assuming all 3 sustain their 2011 performances, so maybe his price will be dropped somewhat as the #3 option on the market (though he’s probably #2 if you don’t consider Napoli a true catcher).  However, if Martin is looking for something close to Molina money, then I sincerely hope that Austin Romine is ready to step in.

This may be a situation where the Yankees’ old policy of not negotiating extensions prior to contracts expiring could cost them money (or Martin), but by most accounts they at least tried to work something out here.

13 thoughts on “The rising price of catchers

  1. Anyone know if JR Murphy will be in Tampa or Trenton this year? Looking at Trenton’s roster they don’t seem to have much depth there other than Gil. Might be telling if the Yanks push Murphy a little harder this year with a higher promotion. If the yanks truly want to get under 189 by 2014, I like the wait and see stance they are doing at catcher. With extensions possibly coming to Cano and Grandy after next season they just may have to go cheap somewhere…

  2. I’d sign Martin to an extension if he were willing to agree to something in the 3 year 22-26m range. Sounds like the Yanks tried that, and he wasn’t interested. Yadier was a gross overpay by the cardinals and Yanks shouldn’t follow the same path

  3. I hear ya T.O but was just thinking out loud. They have so much depth at the lower levels; it couldn’t hurt to push one of them so there would be more playing time for guys even younger that Murphy. Heck Jesus Montero was playing at Trenton at 19, albeit the kid could mash and deserved to be there.

  4. The last numbers I saw projected Martin @ 4 years and $40MM. That was after the Molina contract.