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Offseason round table: Victor Martinez edition

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Welcome to the first ever Lookout Landing offseason round table! In this installment Logan, Matt, Colin, and Andrew discuss Victor Martinez, free agent and oft-suggested Mariners target.

Leon Halip

LD: All right, guys. Welcome to our first ever winter round table discussion! This time around, we'll be talking about Victor Martinez. As you all know, Martinez is a high-profile free agent designated hitter coming off a 166 wRC+ age-35 season. The Mariners, who got a whopping -3.2 fWAR out of their designated hitters in 2014, are understandably intrigued by Martinez's bat. Rumor has it he's high on their offseason priority list, and there certainly are a lot of fans clamoring for them to pick him up. What are your thoughts? Should the Mariners go for Victor Martinez? At what cost?

ME: This is an incredibly difficult situation to be level-headed in. It's like we just spent three months crawling on our hands and knees in the Mojave Desert, living off the crumbs of an expired LUNA Bar found stuffed in our pockets and drinking wrung-out recycled sweat from our shirt sleeves. We made it back to civilization alive, somehow, and you would absolutely be lying if you said you wouldn't spend every cent in your pocket to splurge at the first nice restaurant you found. LYING.

I don't know. The cost for Martinez will certainly be a big dealbreaker for a lot of teams, but I imagine the leverage variable in this whole situation is going to be the amount of time teams are willing to commit to. Someone is going to go that extra year, and my gut tells me the Mariners would rather front-load the whole thing on a smaller scale rather than stretch it out too far. The good news is that Cano's contract doesn't reach albatross stage until long after Martinez will be out of the league, so my immediate reaction is to throw caution to the wind and make it happen. But we can't forget that he isn't invincible--he missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL and boy, wouldn't that kind of thing be fun at the beginning of a four-year deal?

AR: It is interesting that you mention crawling through a desert (do LUNA Bars really expire?), because you know what else you can find in the desert...? Mirages! And while I don't think that Victor Martinez's performance last season was in any way a fluke (V-Mart has a long track record), it probably represents the ~peak of his skill level as a hitter. Martinez almost certainly won't be as good next year (not that anybody really expects him to be). Since 1920, only 23 seasons by players 35-years-old or older have been more productive in terms of wRC+ (and only 10 of those seasons were put together by fellas not named Barry, Babe, or Ted).

Of course, Martinez wouldn't have to be anywhere near as good next year as he was this year to represent a significant improvement for the Mariners at DH. As Logan mentioned, Mariners designated hitters in 2014 were terrible. Their quadruple slash line was .190/.266/.301/.567! (Even Zack Cozart scoffs at those numbers.) Not to be too hyperbolic, but the 2012-version of Victor Martinez would have probably been less detrimental to the M's success. So yes. The Mariners have a position of need. Victor Martinez would address that need. But how much are his skills likely to deteriorate over the next 3-4 years? That's probably a question that needs to be answered before we can begin to determine what an acceptable cost might be to obtain Martinez's services.

CO: I'm not good with the numbers. In preparation for this roundtable, Patrick sent out a quick chart showing the career progression of players similar to V-Mart, and it was not pretty. It was a bunch of lines pointing at the ground and ending abruptly, like one of those fun water slides that ends five feet above the pool—but not fun.

VMart

And yet, with the chart and all the numbers brought up, my answer is "Yeah, but..." I am fully aware that's how bad decisions happen, and I know this is exactly the wrong time for a misstep.

Yeah—but they're bound to make a big move this off-season. 2007 preceded that epically-terrible Erik Bedard trade, and 2009 preceded Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins. Maybe those should serve as lessons, at least Bedard—but this team isn't those teams. This team is ready, and they're a Victor Martinez away from something special. The question on everyone's mind, of course, is cost. He's going to go for at least three, so the question then becomes who's willing to offer four. With where the Mariners are on the win curve, and how perfectly he fits in there to prop it up, I'd do it. I just worry some knucklehead GM and desperate owner is going to go to five.

LD: Right, there's the contract to think about. As we learned from last offseason's Nelson Cruz debacle, every free agent is a good buy at a certain price. It all depends on the contract - and this is a remarkably difficult contract to fathom. Martinez has said that he expects this to be his last contract and that he doesn't want to play past age 40, so I'd assume it'll be either three or four years. Perhaps three and an option. The tricky bit's the average annual value. The closest recent comparable I can think of is Carlos Beltran, who landed 3/$45M from the Yankees. Beltran could play the outfield, but he also wasn't just coming off a monster year, so... For me, Beltran and Martinez are in the same class of player, but unfortunately this position player market's so weak that I think Martinez might get significantly more than that. There's also the part where any team who wants him has to outbid Mike Ilitch and the Tigers... I'd say the low end of my contract expectations would be 3/$50M, and the high end would be 4/$72M.

The question is, are you OK with that kind of dollar value for Victor Martinez? Personally, I'm not sure. On the one hand, he's exactly the kind of player the Mariners want: a great right-handed cleanup hitter who's comfortable DHing. He's not even the kind of guy you'd expect to get murdered in Safeco, since his game isn't built entirely around power. On the other hand, he's a 36-year-old injury-prone DH coming off of a career year, and there's that comp chart. Besides, $72.5M is what Rusney Castillo just got. Yasmany Tomas is going to cost more than Castillo, but which would you rather have: Tomas for seven years, or Martinez for four years plus $20 million to spend elsewhere? Is Martinez going to go back to his pre-2014 baseline of 125 wRC+? If he is, couldn't you get similar production by flipping something (Elias? Taylor? Leone?) for the Dodgers' odd man out Scott Van Slyke? Or eating some cash for Matt Kemp? There are a lot of ways to get thump into the lineup. Martinez is probably the most expensive.

AR: I will admit that for the longest time I kept going back and forth on this. At first glance, 3/$50M seems like it might be reasonable. Victor Martinez was really good last year! But when I went back and looked at previous free agent contacts, I saw that only one person (Jorge Posada) has ever received that much money going into their age-36+ season. Below is a table of the free agent position players (since 2006) who received a multi-year contract for more than $10M after turning 35. (I used contract values from ESPN, so there might be small disparities in the actual values, but these should be close.)

Player Age Contract starts Contract value Years AAV Previous 3 years WAR (avg) Contract WAR $/win
Victor Martinez 35 2015 ? ? ? 0.0, 0.9, 4.4 (1.8) ? ?
Carlos Beltran 36 2014 $45,000,000 3 $15,000,000.00 4.3, 3.2, 1.9 (3.1) -0.5, ongoing N/A
Marlon Byrd 36 2014 $16,000,000 2 $8,000,000.00 1.8, -1.0, 4.1 (1.6) 1.9, ongoing N/A
Torii Hunter 37 2013 $26,000,000 2 $13,000,000.00 3.4, 2.3, 5.2 (3.6) 2.8 $9,285,714.29
Marco Scutaro 37 2013 $20,000,000 3 $6,666,666.67 2.1, 2.7, 1.9 (2.2) 2.5, ongoing N/A
Ichiro Suzuki 39 2013 $13,000,000 2 $6,500,000.00 4.4, 0.1, 2.3 (2.3) 1.5 $8,666,666.67
Derek Jeter 36 2011 $51,000,000 3 $17,000,000.00 3.7, 6.8, 2.6 (4.4) 4 $12,750,000.00
Mike Cameron 36 2010 $15,500,000 2 $7,750,000.00 1.8, 4.0, 4.1 (3.3) 0 :-(
Casey Blake 35 2009 $17,500,000 3 $5,833,333.33 1.8, 2.8, 2.3 (2.3) 8.5 $2,058,823.53
Raul Ibanez 36 2009 $31,500,000 3 $10,500,000.00 3.5, 0.8, 2.9 (2.4) 3 $10,500,000.00
Manny Ramirez 36 2009 $45,000,000 2 $22,500,000.00 2.9, 1.4, 5.8 (3.4) 3.4 $13,235,294.12
Jorge Posada 36 2008 $52,400,000 4 $13,100,000.00 3.1, 4.3, 5.7 (4.4) 3.1 $16,903,225.81
Jim Edmonds 36 2007 $19,000,000 2 $9,500,000.00 8.0, 6.0, 1.7 (5.2) 0.8 $23,750,000.00
Frank Thomas 38 2007 $18,120,000 2 $9,060,000.00 2.5, 0.4, 2.5 (1.8) 1.7 $10,658,823.53

Although not all of these players are super comparable to Martinez in terms of their skillsets, this table still illustrates how signing older free agents to big, multi-year contracts has never really worked out. Casey Blake is the only guy who was "worth" his salary (folks estimated that the cost of a win in free agency last year was probably somewhere between $5M and $7M).

So, no. I don't think that the Mariners should sign Martinez for anywhere near what he's (probably) going to be offered by other teams. (We haven't even mentioned the added cost of a draft pick if/when the Tigers offer Martinez a qualifying offer!) I understand that Seattle's window of opportunity for making a push at the playoffs is going to be widest over the next two or three years. It makes a lot of sense to upgrade the DH spot and add some offensive oomph! to this team to try and get them over the hump. Adding Martinez would do this... but unless the Mariners plan on increasing their payroll dramatically next year, I worry that the cost for Victor Martinez probably isn't worth it. There are too many other holes in this roster to spend so much on a single piece.

ME: The worst part about all this is that the data in the above tables all amount to one enormous, honking red flag stitched together with bloodied rags. Not for nothing, this could be a really, tremendously bad signing, especially if it creeps above three years which...it will. But if the Mariners shell out a bunch of money for Victor Martinez and he lives up to even 75% of his 2014, most of us are happy.

They can build better. They can be smarter, wiser, do this the right way. Crunch numbers, find safer value. But considering we all know that probably isn't going to happen, signing Martinez won't punch a hole in the bottom of the boat, either. I mean, sure, we could still sink off the coast. But by then you could at least walk to shore. There is no way this signing downs the boat in the middle of the sea.

Of course, I've never been one to really worry about money because a) it's not mine, and b) it only matters when ownership has a track record of being overly cautious about it. I never thought that was the case until this Nelson Cruz drama, so now I don't even know what to think.

LD: And there's that name again: Nelson Cruz. See, I'd be comfortable as an anti-Martinez advocate... except I think it's entirely believable that Martinez gets Cruz'd, and then we all feel silly again. For one thing, the guy's market is extremely limited. He's an AL-only player, and he'll be an expensive player, so right there you've knocked out fifteen NL teams plus the five cheapest AL clubs (OAK, HOU, CLE, TB, and KC). Presumably the Twins aren't going to bother. The Red Sox and Blue Jays are already all filled up at DH. The Orioles want to retain Cruz, the Yankees have a bunch of old slow guys who'll need DH time, the Rangers might not want to gun it on the free agent market a year after collapsing (especially with Prince Fielder and Joey Gallo around), the Angels have Pujols and Cron, and the White Sox probably aren't going to go all in on a DH just a year after a 73-win season. You can talk yourself out of pretty much any team as a V-Mart destination, except for Seattle and Detroit.

Which is the rub, of course. If there's a difference between the Cruz situation and the Martinez situation, it's that Texas hasn't shown a tendency to overpay aging stars to get them to stick around. Mike Ilitch, on the other hand... not a good guy to get into a bidding war over a Tiger with. He's the real X factor here. If that guy decides that V-Mart is crucial to his team, the Mariners almost certainly can't get Martinez at a price that any of us would like. If he decides to move on, then there's a chance the Mariners could get Martinez without hamstringing themselves.

All right, guys, time to wrap things up. Any final thoughts?

ME: I think the Mariners should sign Victor Martinez, unless they don't. Either way, their DH situation improves next year.

LD: Victor Martinez is a great short-term fit for the Mariners. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem like a guy who's going to be productive for more than another couple years, and he's definitely never going to recapture his 2014 form again. I have to wonder if the Mariners couldn't use their resources better elsewhere (perhaps on Tomas or Lester) while avoiding a bidding war with Mike Ilitch.

AR: Although signing Victor Martinez would be lovely, the cost will almost certainly be prohibitively high; the Mariners probably have too many other problems that need to be addressed to go all-in on Martinez. That being said, if the M's do sign Martinez to a big contract, I certainly won't be upset; I'll be cheering just as hard (or harder!) as the next guy.

CO (Late edit): Logan makes an exceptional point in his last statement, the one preceding his closing thoughts—the market for Martinez is going to be extremely limited, quite possibly only the Mariners and the Tigers (though it wouldn't surprise me to see the Yankees get heavily involved). I think we'll know before the free agent period starts just to what lengths the Tigers are going to go to re-sign him, and likely if he's even available at all. It wouldn't be surprising to see Ilitch put his best offer on the table before Martinez even reaches free agency. If they want to bring him back, they want to bring him back and they want to avoid the mess that could loom in a bidding war. V-Mart, shockingly, is not a Boras guy. He's with Octagon—Felix's agency. So it isn't as if they're not open to re-signings. It also isn't as if they aren't open to having big-name stars in Seattle, and it'd behoove them to link Martinez with Felix on an upward trending team. Anyway, I'm getting a little long here. I think the Mariners need to make their play and go to four if they need to. If he's available past the opening day of free agency, they have as good a shot as anyone and should take it. As Kevin Mather said recently, this organization isn't looking to spend on middle-of-the-road free agents. So if you're looking to have them spread around what would go to V-Mart, they won't. They might as well spend it, and there isn't a better place to spend it all in one place—for this team—than in Victor Martinez. I suppose there is Tomas, but given their lukewarm interest in Castillo and flat-out balking at the Tanaka sweepstakes, I don't see them getting invested to the level that they'd need to. Of the most realistic outcomes, V-Mart is the best—so go for it.