Russell Martin agreed a five-year, $82-million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays Monday, putting a neat bow on a very quick foray into free agency for Martin. The runners-up for his services (and, by unsubstantiated accounts, the favorites as late as Sunday night) were the Chicago Cubs, the belles of the winter free-agent ball, the ones everyone thought would be absconding not only with Martin, but with some other major prize (or prizes). Where does this leave them?
I would argue that it shouldn’t change a thing.
Martin successfully presented himself as the only bona fide catcher on the open market, the guy teams would need to call if they needed an upgrade behind the plate. If free agency were the only path to acquiring a player like that, he would have been right. Heck, he convinced the Blue Jays he was right, even so. He wasn’t really right, though, because another, implicit option is out there. The Cubs should have had their eyes fixed primarily on this target from the beginning, and hopefully, missing out on Martin will push them into pulling the trigger.
The Cubs should trade for Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero.
Montero and Martin are, in terms of pure talent and skill set, virtually identical players. Each has a .270 career True Average (TAv), according to Baseball Prospectus. Over the last four seasons, Montero has batted .262/.349/.408, and Martin has hit .251/.340/.406. Montero has been six percent better than league-average, after adjusting for park effects. Martin has been five percent better. Each easily clears the offensive standard for catchers. Both are good defenders, though Martin is a bit better, perhaps 10 runs better over the course of a season. Montero is a much better fit for the Cubs, though, in part because of Joe Maddon, and in part because he’s the only one who might yet do something better than anything he has done to date.
Montero is a left-handed hitter. Here are his career platoon splits:
Miguel Montero, Career Splits by Pitcher Handedness
Montero has had two rough seasons in a row—though in each case, he remained a competent catcher and a (sometimes narrowly) adequate hitter for the position. There are two main culprits: overuse, and needless exposure to bad matchups.
Over the past four seasons, Montero has caught more 160 more innings than any other catcher in baseball, according to FanGraphs. He started a league-high 508 games, including 113 against left-handed starting pitchers. He has 539 plate appearances against southpaws since Opening Day 2011. His batting line in those plate appearances: .216/.284/.325. There’s no reason a left-handed batter playing a position that demands a certain number of off days should be put in so many bad situations.
David DeJesus stepped to the plate 273 times for Joe Maddon’s 2014 Tampa Bay Rays. He faced a left-handed pitcher in just nine of those instances. Matt Joyce saw lefties only 35 times in 493 trips to the plate. Of players (excluding switch-hitters) with more than 60 plate appearances in 2014, DeJesus and Joyce had two of the three highest platoon percentages in MLB. (Houston’s Marc Krauss was the only one separating them.)
This is a trademark of Joe Maddon teams. Few managers are more proactive in their effort to obtain the platoon advantage. Maddon is known for modulating his lineup, moving Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist all over the diamond, setting up both direct and indirect platoons. He also pinch-hit more than all but two other AL managers in 2014.
The states of many National League benches in recent seasons have been atrocious, and the Cubs were often among the worst of them, wasting a roster spot or three on entirely useless players. That will change under Maddon. If nothing else, the offense and the defense will be aligned and deployed efficiently. Miguel Montero would see fewer bad matchups under Joe Maddon, and he would get considerably more rest.
As much as I love platoons, it’s the latter consideration—keeping Montero fresh—that really opens up possibilities. At the end of those four years of harder labor than any other catcher has been made to endure, Montero really hit the wall. He was hitting .262/.344/.416 at the All-Star break, but slumped to a .212/.303/.293 mark during the home stretch. Imagine what a Montero seeing scarcely any lefties and playing 10 or 15 percent less often would be able to do.
Montero hit .286/.391/.438 in 2012. It’s unlikely he’ll ever do that again. He didn’t suddenly become a different hitter; he just posted a .362 BABIP after establishing a career norm in the .320 range.
Russell Martin hit .290/.402/.430 in 2014. It’s unlikely he’ll ever do that again. He didn’t suddenly become a different hitter; he just posted a .336 BABIP after establishing a career norm around .285.
The biggest difference between these two players is the price of acquisition. Martin, who hit free agency on the heels of his career year, cost Toronto its first-round pick and $82 million over five years. Montero, two years removed from that career year and three years from free agency, would cost something in a trade, but then he would be owed just $40 million for three years’ work. (By the way, it’s a small thing, but Montero is five months younger than Martin.)
Given what I imagine it would take to get Montero—Welington Castillo for sure, then either a strong prospect like Albert Almora, or a pair of lesser lights? I’m spitballing—I firmly believe that he was the better value all along, and that the Cubs should keep exploring that avenue, if they’re serious about improving their lot in 2015.Next post: Jason Heyward Goes Westward, Braves Voluntarily Go Backward (For Now)
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