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Russell Martin free agency preview

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There's good timing, and then there's Russell Martin's decision to have the best offensive season of his career the year before his third free agency. That's not to mention the weak crop of catchers set to join him on the market, putting the Pirates catcher in especially high demand this winter.

In 2014, Martin has been one of the best catchers in baseball when healthy, a huge step up from the past several years. His offensive production has been shaky in recent seasons, but that hasn't been the case on the defensive side. According to FanGraphs, Martin has consistently saved his team runs with his defense, and now this year, he has been a better hitter than fielder for the first time since 2007, by FanGraphs' metric.

That should be enough to net Martin a huge contract this offseason, but how much is he worth? Can he maintain his production next season, and where will he end up?

Let's start by looking at how Martin got to where he is now.

Where he's been

Martin's career began when the Dodgers drafted him in the 17th round of the 2002 draft, and that turned out to be a huge steal. After slowly making his way up through the minors, Martin was promoted to the big leagues near the beginning of 2006, and he finished ninth in Rookie of the Year voting with a .282/.355/.436 line. He improved next season and posted what was the best year of his career up until 2014, with 19 homers, a (still) career-high 87 RBI and an .843 OPS.

From there, Martin took several years to regain his form at the plate. He finished off his Dodgers career in 2010 after back-to-back seasons of below average numbers, though his on-base percentage remained strong with marks of .352 and .347 in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

But even with the regression, Martin maintained his steady glovework and proved serviceable enough at the plate to justify a starting role. The Yankees recognized his value and signed him to a two-year, $11.5 million contract, and he posted a 93 OPS+ in two seasons with the team, during which the Yanks won a combined 192 regular season games.

From there, it was on to Pittsburgh, where Martin immediately played an integral role in the Pirates' transformation into a playoff contender. Pittsburgh had already shown signs of improvement the year before Martin's arrival, going 79-83 in 2012, but it all came together during his inaugural season, when the Pirates won 94 games and finally made it to the postseason.

Where he is now

Batting average isn't exactly the stat that best defines a player's value, but Martin's run of averages from 2009 to 2013 (.250, .248, .237, .211, .226) says something about the type of hitter he was over that five-year span.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that Martin is hitting .297 this year. More importantly, he would rank fourth in the majors in on-base percentage (.405) if he qualified, and his .842 OPS would trail only the Giants' Buster Posey among catchers.

Even with weeks of missed time, Martin has distinguished himself as one of the best soon-to-be-free-agent hitters and an elite catcher both offensively and defensively—if he can prove 2014 wasn't an anomaly.

That's a risk that one team will have to take. Though Martin has been an average (and in some cases below-average) hitter since 2008, his performance this season is hard to ignore. Throw in his proven ability to handle pitching staffs and throw out base runners, and you've got one of the best catchers in the game, not just on the market.

It's difficult to accurately get a feel of a catcher's defensive value, but we can be pretty sure Martin is among the best. rSB (Stolen Base Runs Saved) calculates "how many runs a catcher contributes to their team by throwing out runners and preventing runners from attempting steals in the first place," according to FanGraphs. Only Welington Castillo of the Cubs leads Martin, and St. Louis' Yadier Molina ranks just behind. Martin has also thrown out 38.7 percent of would-be base stealers, and FanGraphs estimates Martin has saved 14.5 runs with his defense, the 14th-best total in baseball at all positions.

It also helps that Martin has always had great plate discipline. This season it has been exceptional, but even in his down years, Martin drew a lot of walks and put up reasonable on-base percentages. The numbers he posted during some of those seasons, like when he combined for 12 homers and a .680 OPS in 975 plate appearances between 2009 and 2010, aren't anywhere near worth the contract Martin will sign this offseason. But his .297/.409/.441 line in 2014 is—it's just a matter of replicating that success.

Where he's going

Can the Pirates re-sign Martin? Unless he really wants to stay in Pittsburgh and is willing to take less money than he'd receive on the open market, probably not.

The Pirates have always been a small-market team. 2003 was the last year they were better than 20th in team payroll in the majors, when they were 19th. Their $78 million payroll in 2014 ranks 27th in the majors, and it doesn't project to rise significantly enough to afford a player who would likely take up around one-fifth of the team's funds. (Martin should earn around $15 million annually going forward, give or take a few million.)

Martin has already signed the biggest free agent contract during GM Neal Huntington's tenure (two years, $17 million). Could the team up the stakes and give him even more this offseason? Even if they were willing increase his average salary, it'll be virtually impossible to match the offers from big market teams in need of a catcher.

The team that signs Martin will likely be one in need of immediate production. It's no secret that catchers don't age well, and at 31 years of age (32 at the beginning of 2015), Martin might not be a reliable option behind the dish for more than the next few seasons.

Right off the bat, the Dodgers stand out as one of the teams most in need of Martin's help. LA currently has three catchers in the majors, and all of them have batting averages under .200. Starter A.J. Ellis' recent two-homer game against the Cubs tripled his home run total for the season (he now has three, for you math-challenged folks), and his OPS+ is set to decline significantly for the second straight season.

The Dodgers' top catching prospect, 24-year-old Kyle Farmer, hit .238/.306/.292 in High-A and won't make an impact in the majors for another couple of seasons. If the Dodgers want to avoid more years of Ellis languishing at the bottom of the order, Martin is the best alternative among this year's projected free agent catchers.

But an even better fit, and one that's actually pretty realistic, is Martin going to the Chicago Cubs. As the Chicago Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer aptly noted last week, Martin would be a good option to handle the Cubs' pitching staff, which will be in "develop mode" over the next few years.

"His energy and the way he plays the game definitely rubs off on people," Pirates infielder Clint Barmes said, via Wittenmyer's article. "It’s huge for [young] guys to watch him prepare and do what he does. And he’s not a real vocal guy, but when he speaks, everyone listens."

That could rub off on the Cubs' entire team, not just the pitching staff, and for a team that will rely almost entirely on young talent, Martin could be an extremely important presence.

Yes, current Cubs catcher Welington Castillo is a strong defender, but his .239/.299/.389 line (and 96-to-25 K/BB ratio) this season won't fly for the Cubs' future plans. General manager Jed Hoyer said last week that he believes in Castillo, and the latter's tenure in the organization certainly makes it less likely that the Cubs will give up on him so easily.

But Martin is a proven game-changer. His first season with the Pirates was also the team's first winning season in 20 years. He hasn't missed the playoffs since 2010 and has done so twice in his career. For a team committed to turning things around, Martin could be the perfect acquisition.

As an additional possibility, Martin is a native of Ontario, Canada, and a return to his native country is certainly possible.

In the past, Martin hasn't exactly gotten along with the Blue Jays. He has publicly feuded with third baseman Brett Lawrie and accused the Jays of stealing signs. You'd have to ask Martin if he's put that behind him or not, but I'd bet he would be okay going to the Blue Jays at the right price and if he believed the team had a chance to win.

The Jays offered Martin a contract when he was a free agent in the winter of 2010, which he declined in favor of the Yankees. Clearly, Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos has shown interest in the past, and now that Martin is putting up a career season...why not again?

The one issue is that the Blue Jays have catcher Dioner Navarro signed through the end of next season, and he has been solid this season (.277/.320/.400) after last year's breakout performance.

But asking Navarro to continue his production isn't completely realistic, considering his career history. Backup catchers George Kottaras and Josh Thole don't inspire much confidence either, and until prospect Max Pentecost becomes a regular a few years down the road, Martin could be a perfect fit to help develop the staff.