The Yankees needed a starting catcher. The Yankees had a starting catcher who’s been worth 5.2 fWAR over the past two seasons (and that probably underestimates the value of his pitch framing abilities), and he’s just signed a two year, $17 million contract. Unfortunately, he signed that contract with the Pirates, not the Yankees, as the latter apparently never got particularly close to a deal with him.
As far as the Yankees’ level of interest goes, details are a little sketchy. Jon Heyman reported that the Yankees were working in the $12-14 million range with Russell Martin before he signed his new contract, but most of the New York beat reporters have said that the Yankees never made Martin an offer at all, and in fact haven’t made an offer to any position player yet. David Waldstein passed along the most specific detail: claiming that the Yankees told Martin they didn’t have the cash to match the Pirates’ offer.
So that’s really the rub: Martin is going to Pittsburgh because of the Yankees 2014 budget plans (or the Yankees had no interest in him at all and just used the payroll issue as a cover, but that wouldn’t comport with everything else we’ve heard about the organization’s opinion of Martin). The front office’s desire to get below the luxury tax threshold is stronger than their desire to retain a solid starting catcher at a fair market rate, even if the likely alternative is starting a replacement level (or worse) catcher this season. And yes, I understand that some of you think that’s a bullish assessment of Martin, but with all due respect you’re simply wrong about that. Martin may have struggled to hit his weight last year, but weak bats are the norm for catchers these days, and Martin’s wRC+ of 95 was just below the average mark for the position (96), which actually isn’t that surprising when you remember that he hit 21 home runs and worked a walk rate of 10.9%. In other words, he was basically an average catcher just on the value of his offense, and I doubt that his defensive skills are a matter of strong contention. The biggest concern with Martin has always been his health, but he’s remained healthy for almost all of the past two seasons, a development that easily makes him worth this rate of pay given his age (29), and the gobs of television money coming into the industry that are only going to push salaries up even further in the future.
So now the conversation turns to who starts behind the plate for the Yankees in 2013, and the picture is not a pretty one. A.J. Pierzynski and Mike Napoli are likely out of the question, and there isn’t another option of the free agent market that you should feel good about right now. Maybe the Yankees get lucky and someone gets non-tendered tonight, just like Martin did two years ago, but that’s unlikely. Perhaps they imagine trading for a young, cost controlled catcher who can start, but players like that are rarely, if ever, available and, if they are, they likely won’t come cheap. That means that, for now, we have to assume that the presumptive starter is already in the organization, and anyone of those four potential starters (which should really be three, as Austin Romine isn’t at the point where he should be considered a big league player come April, let alone a starter) is likely to leave even his harshest critic viewing Martin in a new light.