Victor Martinez’s reported four-year, $50 million deal with the Tigers would make him the third-highest paid catcher in baseball behind Joe Mauer and Jorge Posada, which is interesting given that nearly every other position has many more big-money deals.
Several factors keep catchers from cashing in more often as free agents. First and foremost is that there just aren’t a lot of great-hitting catchers. Never have been and likely never will be, which is why players like Mauer and Posada and Martinez are so valuable.
Teams generally focus first on defense behind the plate and the position also takes a lot out of players physically, so top catchers are often starting to show signs of decline by the time they reach typical free agency age in their early thirties.
Martinez’s four-year, $50 million deal would be very close to the four-year, $52.5 million contract Posada signed with the Yankees as a free agent three offseasons ago. Since then only one free agent catcher has gotten as much as even $10 million on the open market and that’s John Buck, who signed a three-year, $18 million deal with the Marlins last week.
Martinez turns 32 years old next month, so a four-year contract would go through his age-35 season. Even elite catchers tend to wear down by then, so while the $50 million commitment isn’t huge in the grand scheme of free agency it represents a risky investment in a backstop. With that said, Martinez has less wear and tear than most 32-year-old catchers thanks to seeing significant action at first base. After logging 1,108, 1,233, 1,110, and 1,043 innings behind the plate in his first four full seasons he’s caught a combined total of 2,038 innings in the past three years, along with 763 innings at first base.
Martinez’s defense has never been a strength and teams have started to run on him at will during the past two seasons, but his offensive production is good enough for him to be an asset if a full-time move to first base or designated hitter is needed and in the short term at least the Tigers are getting a bargain. They may regret the four-year, $50 million deal when he’s still on the books for $12.5 million as a 35-year-old in 2014, but in the meantime the Tigers are getting an elite-hitting catcher for less than even secondary stars typically make at other positions.