Contract extension talks between catcher Miguel Montero and the Arizona Diamondbacks reportedly ended without a resolution this spring. Montero is said to be looking for something like the four-year, $50 million contract Victor Martinez received from the Tigers in free agency prior to the 2010 season. The Diamondbacks do have Montero under contract for 2012 (the last of his team-controlled arbitration seasons), but at the moment it looks like he will become a free agent after the World Series. Is Montero’s desire for such a contract reasonable?
Martinez’ own deal obviously looks bad now given that he is out with the injury, but even at the time it was questionable. It would have been decent if he was a starting catcher, but the Tigers did not even wait to see if he could start for a couple of seasons, making him a primary DH right away. Alex Avila‘s emergence aside, in itself Martinez’ contract looked problematic even before the injury. Martinez’ bat was excellent for a catcher, but is much less impressive for a designated hitter or first baseman. Did the Tigers think that Martinez’ past positional value would remain even as he DHed?
What would four years and $50 million dollars be buying? Assuming that the extension would begin after 2012, and taking into account a small annual increase in the price of a marginal win on the free agent market in addition to a half-win a year decline, four years and $50 million would be buying a player who would project as a three-win player. Montero has averaged almost three wins per year over the last three seasons, but we also know that we need to account for regression, aging, and other factors when projecting a player`s true talent in the future.
[Today I want to try something a bit different. I want to give "ranges" of expected performance for each general component discussed in order to get some crude "best" and "worst" case scenarios. Now, when I use straight-up numbers from projections, they are usually assumed to be in the "middle" of such a range, so this is not really a difference in the method used, simply the mode presentation. The idea is to be more explicit in acknowledging the uncertainty always implicit in such discussions, but perhaps it will add too much confusion. We'll see how it works for now.]
Montero bears a superficial similarity to Martinez in that he has an above-average bat compared to league average, which is very good for a catcher. But the resemblance between the two players does not go far beyond that.
Martinez is sometimes overrated as a hitter, but he is good. Montero has been a good hitter for the past four seasons, but even without taking his more hitter-friendly park and league, he is not quite on Martinez’ level. ZiPS, Steamer, Marcel and the Fans all have him hitting for a wOBA somewhere between .333 and .341 in 2012. After adjusting for the park, that is worth about six to 10 runs above average over 700 plate appearances.
The discussion of Martinez can probably end there, since Montero can probably catch a longer. For one, while Martinez was 32 going into the 2011 season, Montero will only be 29 at the end of this season. For another, Montero seems to be a better catcher in the field. Of course, the “defensive” contributions are tough to measure. Montero may also suffer a bit because it seems that when a catcher can hit a bit, his defensive contributions are almost automatically questioned. It is sort of a “reverse Gold Glove” effect. Until this past season, the Fans were a bit down on Montero’s fielding, seeing him as below average in 2009 and 2010, but slightly above average in 2011. Let’s call that “average” for a rough projection.
However, other methods of evaluating catcher defense are much more positive about Montero behind the plate. One crude metric saw him as the best defensive catcher in the National League 2011 with respect to a cumulative rating with respect to throwing out base stealers, blocking pitches, and avoiding errors — about eight runs above average overall. Perhaps even more intriging with respect to Montero is Mike Fast’s recent work on pitch framing. Fast found that since 2007, Montero has been one of the best pitch-framers in baseball, saving about 11 runs per 120 games.
It is tough to put this all together into a fielding projection for Montero, so let’s give a range. On the low side, let’s say at worst Montero is about average based on the Fans Scouting Report. On the high side, let’s take the metrics listed in the previous paragraph, also accounting for a bit of (very crudely eyeballed) regression, and say that Montero might also be 10 runs above average per full season as a catcher.
Projected playing time is also important when considering a long-term contract for any player, but especially with catchers since they typically need more rest than other position players and are also more subject to injuries. On one hand, Montero played 140 games in 2011. On the other, he had knee surgery (scary for a catcher) in 2010 and missed as big chunk of the season. Let’s say that his range of true talent for games played is 100 to 140.
Let’s wrap this up to compare the how the best and worst case scenarios listed above. Beginning with the low end of things: +6 runs for offense, +12.5 runs for the positional adjustment, average defense, and +20 runs to account for the National League replacement level, all adjusted for 100 games of playing time, totals just over +2.5 WAR per season. Adjusted for a year down the road, that is more like two wins per season. So at the low end of our suggested projection, Montero is not worth a “V-Mart deal.”
On the upper end: +10/+12.5/+10/+20, adjusted for 140 games, equals about 4.5 WAR. Adjusted for a year down the road, that is about four wins.
Averaging our projections together, we get about three wins for Montero in 2013 (remember that we should expect veterans like Montero to decline each year) — which would be worth a Victor Martinez deal. That may not be as positive a projection as Carson Cistulli gave a couple of months ago, but it is a very good player. The Diamondbacks seem to have decided that either Montero is not worth that or that they simply cannot afford it. Without an immediately obvious option to Montero after 2012 in either the majors or minors, it is a curious decision. Assuming Montero puts in a typical performance and stays relatively healthy, he is probably going to get paid by someone when and if he hits free agency.
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