$50 million deal looks worse with news Tigers will use Victor Martinez mostly at DH


From the Tigers’ point of view I liked signing Victor Martinez to a four-year, $50 million deal last week. Initially, at least.

My assumption at the time was that they would use Martinez as their primary catcher for as long as he was somewhat passable behind the plate, getting an elite-hitting backstop for the first two or three years of the contract before perhaps shifting him to first base or designated hitter for the final year or two.

It turns out, my assumption about how Detroit plans to use Martinez was wrong.

Jason Beck of MLB.com reports that the Tigers will utilize Martinez as their primary designated hitter from Day 1 and will likely use him at catcher only to give Alex Avila days off. Now, that certainly doesn’t make Martinez useless, but the less time he spends at catcher the less value he has to the Tigers.

Compared to the average catcher, Martinez’s offense is elite. Compared to the average designated hitter, Martinez’s offense is merely good. This season MLB catchers as a whole produced a .686 OPS, which was the second-lowest of any position ahead of only shortstops. Meanwhile, designated hitters combined for a .758 OPS. And first basemen, corner outfielders, and designated hitters–the group of players teams typically choose from when picking a DH–combined for a .780 OPS.

Martinez has an .838 career OPS, including an .844 mark in 2010. As a DH he’s about 10 percent above average offensively. As a catcher he’s about 22 percent above average offensively. Or, put another way: If the Tigers start Martinez at catcher they can also have another big bat in the lineup at DH. If the Tigers start Martinez at DH, that other lineup spot goes to Avila, who hit .228 with a .656 OPS as a rookie after posting modest numbers in the minors.

There were plenty of risks involved in signing Martinez to a four-year, $50 million deal even when I thought the Tigers were adding him as their starting catcher. Adding him as their primary DH carries many of those same risks and does so without nearly as much of the upside.

Spending bill could exempt minor leaguers from federal labor laws

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Mike DeBonis of the Washington Post reports that, according to three congressional officials familiar with current talks, an upcoming spending bill could exempt minor leaguers from federal labor laws. This is an issue we have spent some time covering here. A bill proposed in 2016, H.R. 5580, would have amended language in Section 13 of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which would have made it so minor leaguers wouldn’t be protected under a law that protects hourly workers. There is also an ongoing class action lawsuit over unfair labor prospects.

As DeBonis notes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is among the representatives backing the measure. The provision specifically concerning minor leaguers didn’t appear in any of the draft spending bills, but DeBonis spoke to officials familiar with the negotiations under the condition of anonymity who said it was under serious consideration by top party leaders.

DeBonis got a comment from Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner. He said, “We’re not saying that [minor league pay] shouldn’t go up. We’re just saying that the formula of minimum wage and overtime is so incalculable. I would hate to think that a prospect is told, ‘You got to go home because you’re out of hours, you can’t have any extra batting practice.’ It’s those kinds of things. It’s not like factory work. It’s not like work where you can punch a time clock and management can project how many hours they’re going to have to pay for.”

O’Conner said as much in an interview back in December. It’s an extremely disingenuous deflection. O’Conner also said, “I don’t think that minor league baseball is a career choice for a player.” This is all about creating legislation that allows Minor League Baseball to keep money at the top, which is great if you’re a team owner or shareholder. If they could get away with it, every owner of every business would pay its employees as little as possible, which is why it’s important to have unions and people keeping an eye on legislation like this that attempts to strip laborers of their rights in the dead of night.

Minor league players need to unionize. Or, better yet, the MLBPA should open their doors to include minor leaguers and fight for them just as they would a player who has reached the majors. Minor leaguers should be paid a salary with which they do not have to worry about things like rent, electricity, food, and transportation. They should be provided healthcare and a retirement fund. And if anyone tries to tell you it’s not affordable, MLB eclipsed $10 billion in revenues last year. There’s plenty to go around.

The owners are banking on this legislation passing and labor still coming in excess due to young men holding onto the dream of making the major leagues. According to CNN, “far less than 10 percent of minor league players ever get the chance to make it to the major leagues.” Some of these players have forgone college to work in baseball. They arrive at the park in the morning and leave late at night, putting in far more than your standard eight-hour work day. Since their bodies are their vehicle for success, they have to exercise regularly and vigorously off the field while maintaining a healthy diet. (And teams are still reluctant to invest even the smallest amount of money to ensure their young players eat well.) Minor leaguers make tremendous sacrifices to pursue their dream and now Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying Congress to legalize taking further advantage of them.