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Victor Martinez and Paying for a Career Year

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The Mariners missed out on one of their top targets. Will they regret it or did they dodge a bullet?

Leon Halip

Yesterday was a pretty emotional day if you were a Mariners fan. The biggest news of the day was the Cy Young award announcement. Waves of disappointment and frustration rolled over the social media airwaves when Corey Kluber was announced as the winner of the award over an equally deserving Felix Hernandez.

A few hours before the Cy Young award announcement, the Detroit Tigers announced that they had resigned Victor Martinez to a four year contract worth $68 million. Martinez was a popular offseason target for optimistic Mariner fans and many thought that he would be the target the Mariners would pursue the hardest. To the disappointment of many, the Tigers quickly and conclusively shut that door early in the offseason.

Any conversation about Victor Martinez has to start with the price you're paying for a 36-year-old designated hitter. The Mariners were going to be bidding against a team who could afford to throw ridiculous amounts of money towards their man. More than any other team in baseball, the Tigers are in win-now mode. Their position on the win curve (the value of a win based on a team's projected win total) means they can justify paying a premium on a marginal win -- not to mention the millions of dollars team owner Mike Illich is willing to throw away to see a championship in Detroit. Are the Mariners in a similar position on the win curve to justify paying a premium for a marginal win? Maybe. But, based on the deal Martinez ultimately accepted, it seems like the Mariners were able to dodge a bullet here.

Victor Martinez's performance in 2014 was very clearly an aberration when considered in perspective -- a career year by any metric.

  • His average wRC+ in the preceding five years: 115.2; in 2014: 166.
  • His average ISO in the preceding five years: .145; in 2014: .230.
  • His average WAR in the preceding five years: 2.34; in 2014: 4.4.

To expect Martinez to maintain anywhere near this level of production is foolish and the projections agree. Steamer projects regression across the board for Martinez in 2015 and that performance will only continue to deteriorate as he ages.

Perhaps Victor Martinez is an age-defying outlier, similar to David Ortiz. In that case, he might not be as great of a disaster but based on Jeff Zimmerman's recent research into adjusting aging curves for the steroid era, Martinez's production sits on the precipice of steep decline. While we can't know for sure how Martinez will hold up in his age-37, -38, or -39 seasons, its stands to reason the value he'll provide on the field will never match the amount he's being paid. Using a simple aging curve of .5 WAR lost each year, Martinez could be worth 8-8.5 WAR in the next four years. If a single win is worth around $6 million on the open market, and accounting for inflation over the next four years, Martinez could be worth $50-$55 million over the life of the contract.

The market for free agents in baseball is largely driven by a "what have you done lately" approach. Based on his performance in 2014, Victor Martinez expected to be paid correspondingly and the Tigers followed through. Yes, the Tigers overpaid, but they're betting on a known property and on Martinez's ability to at least match his rough projections over the final few years of his career. I'm not sure the Mariners would have been better off had they outbid the Tigers for Martinez's services. There are other fish in the pond and the Mariners are going to be connected to a lot of them. Let's not get too caught up on the one that got away.