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Martinez should act fast in free agency
Baseball’s offseason hierarchy is well established. The best five free agents are, in some order, Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre.
Of that group, I will be shocked if Martinez isn’t the first to sign.
Because of his unique place in the market -- a switch-hitter, with power, who plays multiple positions -- Martinez and his representatives have every reason to move quickly.
Think about it.
Martinez spent time this year as a catcher, first baseman and designated hitter with the Boston Red Sox. As a result, he should appeal to teams that want increased production at any of those positions.
Some of the clubs matching that general description: the Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers, Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Angels, Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants (at least until The Thong re-signs).
Obviously, I compiled that list without taking financial considerations into full account. Realistically, six or seven of those teams have the need and means to sign Martinez. But you get the point: He is in high demand.
Right now, that is.
Once teams begin checking off their respective shopping lists, Martinez will lose part of his leverage. A big part of his appeal is that he fits into an American League lineup with a “2” or “3” or “DH” next to his name. As rosters fill up, that trait becomes a little less marketable.
Let’s take the Mariners, for example.
Their offense was abominable this year. They need power so desperately they would probably petition Major League Baseball to let Martinez catch and play first base, just so he could bat twice.
Eric Wedge, who had a very good relationship with Martinez when the two were in Cleveland, is the team’s new manager. The Mariners’ young players at first base (Justin Smoak) and behind the plate (Adam Moore) aren’t as ready as they were supposed to be.
So, Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik could give Martinez’s agent the following sales pitch: Look, Victor can play basically wherever he wants -- catcher, first base, DH. Let’s assume that he plays 150 games. You come up with the distribution, and we’ll make it happen.
But what if they announce Monday they will bring back Russell Branyan as the DH? (You know they want to do it.) Then Martinez could insist on getting at-bats at only two positions. His bargaining position would be a little less favorable, particularly given concerns about his catching. Martinez threw out 21 percent of potential base-stealers this year -- better than his 2009 showing but still not very good.
The major question surrounding Martinez’s free agency is this: What is more important to him -- an ironclad promise to catch, or the maximum dollar value? He probably can’t get both.
At this point, Martinez is best suited for the AL. The Tigers, Rangers, Orioles and White Sox look like especially good fits. But each team has a catcher-of-the-future type on its roster: Alex Avila, Taylor Teagarden, Matt Wieters and Tyler Flowers, respectively.
How many of those teams are prepared to tell Martinez that he would, in fact, be a 90- or 100-game catcher?
“I think he wants to catch every day,” said Rays batting coach Derek Shelton, who worked with Martinez in Cleveland. “He takes pride in his leadership abilities -- and he should, because he is a tremendous leader on and off the field.
“I also feel that he wants to win and will go to a place where he can do that (and catch every day). This guy’s as good of a teammate as there is. Any team that gets him would be very fortunate.”
The Tigers, in particular, have been outspoken about their need for a left-handed presence behind slugger Miguel Cabrera. Detroit club president/general manager Dave Dombrowski is known for being aggressive early in the offseason. So stay tuned.
Dombrowski has two advantages in wooing Martinez: 1) In recent years, the Tigers have employed more high-profile stars from Martinez’s native Venezuela than any other franchise in the majors; 2) Martinez is familiar with the AL Central, having played in Cleveland for most of his career.
“Catching to him is very important,” said Detroit righty Armando Galarraga, a fellow Venezuelan. “But you know what? It’s about the money, too. He’s a free agent. He wants to sign a good contract.
“He wants to get four or five years. Whatever team gives it to him, he’ll feel comfortable there. If the Tigers offer that, they’ve got a good shot. He knows the division. Detroit has a couple other Venezuelan players. But I don’t know anything for sure.”
A word of caution: I’m not so sure general managers should view Martinez as a candidate for full-time -- or even half-time -- DH duty. Not everyone can be a DH. Ask Pat Burrell. He hated it. Too much downtime can be a very dangerous thing to the psyche of an everyday player.
Martinez has some experience as a designated hitter, and, frankly, he hasn’t been very good. He has a .235 batting average, five home runs and 21 RBIs in 119 official at-bats.
That’s burlesque. Uh, I mean Burrell-esque.
For that reason and others, Martinez doesn’t seem ready to embrace life as a 110- or 120-game DH. He likes to catch. He doesn’t mind first base. And the quicker he signs, the better chance he will have to incorporate those priorities into his work schedule for next year.
I can’t promise you Martinez will sign before Thanksgiving. But I know this: He should.
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