Pirates reel in quite the catch with Martin
Catcher leaves Yankees as free agent, signs two-year, $17 million contract
Russell Martin had a good feeling about the Pirates' potential.He had an even better feeling about Clint Hurdle. But he felt best about the dollars in the Bucs' offer. It was an easy, quick decision for the free-agent catcher whose two-year contract was formally announced Friday afternoon by the Pirates. "Simple answer," Martin began when asked why he chose the Pirates over other suitors, most notably the Yankees. "They had the best offer on the table, which means they want you. "To me, it's going to be a challenge, and I'm excited for it. It's a team with a lot of potential, not that far away, and I'm excited to take on the challenge." Martin's contract is for $17 million, evenly split between the two seasons (with $2 million of the $8.5 million for 2013 payable up front as a signing bonus). He chose that option over a three-year offer for $21 million, and his reasons for doing so should be encouraging to the Bucs. "I didn't want a long-term contract, especially coming off the season I had," said Martin, who hit a career-low .211 in 2012. "I feel I can play much better, improve myself, and go at [free agency] again in a couple of years." Martin will be 31 when this contract expires. His motivation to step up his game could not have made Pirates GM Neal Huntington feel any better about the signing than he already did. "Regardless of the contract length," Huntington said, "I like the player. The defense, the energy, our indicators that he will continue to be a very good player. We got the deal done at two [years], and feel great about it." Martin's whirlwind visit to Pittsburgh included the requisite physical, the formal contract-signing and his first reunion with his new manager since Hurdle managed the three-time All-Star in the 2008 All-Star Game in the old Yankee Stadium. "He's just a stand-up, hard-nosed individual. I've always respected Clint," Martin said. "The way his teams play -- hard. He's the kind of guy who'll have your back, the kind you want to fight for. I just like the guy, plain and simple. I got a good feeling when he's around." The commitment of $17 million to a .211-hitter whose average has declined for five consecutive seasons raised some eyebrows in puzzlement. However, aside from his proven power, Martin plays at an "iceberg" position -- 90 percent of a catcher's virtues are below the surface, not easily captured in statistics. "His enthusiasm will help us take that next step," summarized Huntington. Among the myriad of statistical credits, one that stood out for Huntington was Martin's ability to throw out baserunners. Since his 2006 debut, he has thwarted 216 steal attempts which, according to Elias, is the most of any Major League catcher in that span. The Pirates were abysmal in that department in 2012, nailing only 19 of 173 runners. Hence, more emphasis will be placed on pitchers minding runners, but Martin can be a big part of the cure. "We have to do a better job with our pitchers controlling the running game," Huntington said, "but Martin will certainly have to help them. He has the arm strength, the release and the accuracy to throw out baserunners." Also significant is Martin's workload. Over the last six seasons, his 777 games and 6,574 innings caught lead all big-league receivers and, entering his age-30 season, there is no reason to expect his playing time to dwindle. Martin has averaged 122 starts behind the plate in his seven seasons. The Pirates have not had a catcher with as many starts in a season since 2004, when Jason Kendall started 145 games. Martin does more than simply squat and catch pitchers. He has a reputation for helping them get favorable calls from umpires, for "framing pitches" in the game's lexicon. "That's a tough craft to teach. A lot of repetition," said Martin, aware of that reputation. "It's a feel, it's recognizing the pitch and what it will do early, so you know which pitches to try to bring back a little bit. It becomes a cat-and-mouse game with the umpire. "My job is to make sure strikes are strikes. I don't know how to explain why people feel I'm good at that; I guess if you can do that consistently, you're considered pretty good behind the plate." Before Martin can start recognizing their pitches, he will have to recognize the Pittsburgh pitchers. He of course knows A.J. Burnett, having caught 30 of his 32 starts for the Yankees in 2011, and frequently caught James McDonald with the 2008-2009 Dodgers. Otherwise, he'll need a crash course in Spring Training -- a course that will be interrupted by his expected participation with Canada in the World Baseball Classic. "I'll have to watch a lot of video to get a better understanding of those guys," Martin said of the Pirates staff. "I feel there is some talent here." Burnett can look forward to Battery Reunion II, following his well-chronicled 2012 re-acquaintance with Rod Barajas, his former catcher with the Toronto Blue Jays. This also means Martin succeeds Barajas -- who had succeeded him in 2011 with the Dodgers. "Yeah, that's a bit funny," said Martin, who had actually been non-tendered by the Dodgers to make room for Barajas. "Barajas is a great guy, he was a great teammate and he's an even better person. Hopefully, I can have the year I'm hoping for and fill his shoes."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.