If Martin goes, the Pirates should trade for Rene Rivera
If Martin goes, the Pirates should trade for Rene Rivera

Let’s make one thing clear from the start — I hope the Pirates re-sign Russell Martin.  This isn’t a piece that’s going to soft-shoe how the Pirates will be OK without Martin and they don’t really need to try hard to get him back.

The Pirates need Russell Martin.  They have the payroll capacity to re-sign Russell Martin.  What they can’t do is get crazy and give him a 5 year deal, which I fear is what at least one team will do.  Personally, I think Martin’s average annual value on a contract should be $12M to $14M, but someone may give in excess of $15M and price them out of reality.

To re-iterate my previous thoughts on Martin, I would go 3 year/$38M with an option for a 4th year at $10M.  For a catcher covering his age-32 to age-35 years, that’s a great deal.

But let’s examine two possibilities should the Pirates fail to get Russell Martin back.  I’m looking at outside options in this column because the thought of Chris Stewart being the primary catcher next year gives me a skin rash.  I’m also assuming that the front office has lost faith in Tony Sanchez to be a primary catcher in the majors, as well.

It’s been well-documented that the Pirates value defense from the catcher.  One of the most important skills that is still being undervalued for catchers is pitch framing, or the ability to make balls turn into strikes by glove positioning and body control.  Essentially, the catcher is fooling the umpire.

Using Statcorner’s pitch framing leaderboard for 2014, you can see that 14 catchers were at least 10 runs above average (RAA) in 2014 for pitch framing.  This is important because advanced stats say that every 10 runs created or saved equals 1 win.  So just by pitch framing, 14 catchers were responsible for producing runs in that facet to contribute to a win (this doesn’t account for other facets of defense like controlling the stolen base or passed balls, though).

Hey, look who had the 10th highest total of RAA for pitch framing — old friend and current free agent, Russell Martin!  There are a lot of names that you would expect to see in this list, like Buster Posey, Brian McCann, and Jonathan Lucroy, but there were also a couple that caught my eye as potential trade targets.

The first is Rene Rivera (5th in RAA with +18.3 runs) of the San Diego Padres.  Last season was the first season in his career that the 30-year old Rivera played over 100 games.  He responded with a very solid season for a catcher at .252 AVG/.319 OBP/.432 SLG with 11 homers, the great pitch framing numbers, and a caught stealing percentage of 36.3%.  This all helped him produce a 3.0 WAR, which is interesting considering his career total prior to 2014 was -0.5.

Because he’s been a journeyman that has bounced around, Rivera is becoming arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason.  The Padres’ primary catcher, when he’s not hurt, is Yasmandi Grandal.  Perhaps the Padres would be willing to sell high on Rivera.  The Pirates would be picking up a catcher entering his age-31 season with three years of control left and Rivera’s bat will prevent the Pirates from having to see Stewart’s anemic bat in the lineup.  It’s not just Stewart’s bat, but also his inability to block balls in the dirt and poor numbers on throwing out batters this year (23.1%), as well.

Rivera (and to a lessor extent, Stewart) would be a good stopgap until Elias Diaz may be ready in 2016.  I see him spending the whole 2015 season in Triple A Indianapolis refining his craft and then entering 2016’s Spring Training with a chance to head north.

The second trade target I would pursue would be Hank Conger of the Angels.  He had the 4th highest RAA on pitch framing with +21.3 runs this year.  Like Rivera, Conger will be arbitration-eligible for the first time this year.  Unlike Rivera, he’s only age-27 in 2015 and still has some upside left.  Conger put up a line of .221 AVG/.293 OBP/.325 SLG with 4 homers, so it would be a big step down from the offense we saw last year out of Martin, but the Pirates would be getting a young controllable asset with three years of team control.

If the Pirates were to trade for Conger, I could see Tony Sanchez going out west in the deal.  With Conger and Sanchez being the same age, Sanchez would be essentially blocked here in Pittsburgh.  The Angels would be saving a little bit of salary (which is important to them for luxury tax concerns) and getting a C/DH option with more team control than Conger.

To close, I hope the Pirates re-sign Martin.  Not only is he great offensively, he’s great defensively, and he’s great in the locker room.  That’s a triple win.  Consider Rivera and Conger to be contingency plans.  In case of emergency, break glass, if you will.