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With Martinez, there's a catch

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  November 23, 2010 02:53 PM

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The logic -- make that the supposed logic, if you're among the aggravated majority right now -- behind the Red Sox' thinking with Victor Martinez is not hard to recognize.

Catchers, save for a rare few such as Carlton Fisk, have a long history of aging in fast forward once they are on the wrong side of 30. Martinez turns 32 two days before Christmas. He hasn't been much of a defensive catcher, at least in terms of throwing, since elbow surgery in June 2008.

While he is a tremendous hitter for the position -- he batted .313 with an .865 OPS in 775 at bats for the Red Sox since coming over from Cleveland at the 2009 trade deadline -- his season-average numbers per 162 games of a .300 batting average, 21 homers, and 103 RBIs would only be good and not great, especially considering his likely incremental decline, once he makes the inevitable transition two years from now to first baseman or designated hitter.

So there you go. That's the logical part, backed up with the requisite data, of why the Red Sox' brain trust permitted Martinez to depart a place where he was an absolutely perfect fit for a four-year, $50 million deal with the Detroit Tigers this afternoon.

There's a decent chance it will turn out to be a sound baseball move in the long run. But you know what? From every other point of view -- every other one -- it stinks. Victor Martinez is no longer with the Red Sox, and no matter what alternative plan Theo Epstein may have mind, we are comfortable saying that they are a lesser team for losing him.

Let's start with the financial reasons, because there are some mixed messages here that require some decoding. While Epstein said at the general managers' meetings two weeks ago that his priority was bringing Martinez back as the team's catcher (and Adrian Beltre as the third baseman, something else we're putting in the Fat Chance file), the general manager also offered a caveat that was buried well below the "Theo Wants To Keep 'Em!" headline:

"It always comes down to dollars and years," he said.

Now, that's always true when dealing with a Scott Boras client, a chore with which Theo is familiar, and it's probably true in most other instances. But in Martinez's case -- and we should note that he is not a Boras client -- it's only half true, at best. According to multiple reports, the Red Sox did offer Martinez four years, but at just $42 million. That's $8 million less than what he received from Detroit, or $2 million per season.

It came down to money, something that should never be an issue with the Red Sox unless they are playing the stinkin' rich Yankees in a game of one-on-one for a player. They could have paid him more than Detroit did and still looked at it as good value, despite the potential for an accelerated decline had he remained behind the plate. Hell, it's a mild surprise that Martinez received "just" $50 million. Didn't you think he'd get more?

You know what their refusal to go higher tells me? That the Red Sox weren't serious about signing him -- something first indicated by their telling and vaguely insulting two-year offer during the season. If they sincerely wanted to keep him, wouldn't they have started negotiating with him in good faith, oh, roughly about the time Josh Beckett got a four-year extension? Why are they so wary of dead money? Do they already have it budgeted for John Lackey three years from now?

I refuse to believe the Red Sox offered Martinez four years with a genuine presumption that he would take a discount. They knew exactly what they were doing -- making him a offer that they knew he would refuse. Hey, we tried. It's not terribly dissimilar from their mode of operation before Johnny Damon's departure to the Yankees, or Pedro Martinez's to the Mets. It's just less contentious.

If they wanted him back, they could have had him back. Hit us with the conclusion, Sherlock: They didn't want him back. And from a current and immediate-future, purely baseball perspective -- even with the legitimate concerns about the player he might be at the end of the deal -- it makes about as much sense as Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Opening Day Catcher/Recovering Throw-A-Phobe.

There's so much to like about Martinez as a player that it's challenging to summarize his attributes in brief. He's a switch-hitting catcher with a career .838 OPS who fits perfectly in the No. 3 spot in a good lineup, mauls lefthanded pitching (.400-12-39 in a 167 PAs last year), torments the Yankees (16 homers -- more than he has against any other opponent), thrives at Fenway (.322 average, .900 OPS in his career) . . . and oh, yeah, he's a great teammate and a natural leader who was very, very easy to like.

I know why they let him go, and I also know that Theo is a hell of a general manager. But they made a mistake here. They should have given him four years, and they should have given him more money that anyone else offered. They could have used him as a catcher for two years, let him take some at-bats against lefties away from David Ortiz in the interim, and dealt with the issue of transitioning him to DH or first base two years down the road.

At best, he'd still be a versatile and valuable player. At worst, they'd have a situation that fell somewhere between the recent seasons of Mike Lowell and Jason Varitek.

Unless the luxury tax is more of a factor going forward than we believe, they could have afforded that, in every way.

Instead, Victor Martinez is the Tigers' asset today, and Theo is left with a couple of cherished compensatory picks as he ponders his Plan B, or Plan C, or whatever letter we're on today.

Tom Werner isn't the only one thinking it had better be something good. Because someone very good just said goodbye.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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