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Victor Martinez To Detroit

You have to hand it to Dave Dombrowski – he is nothing if not decisive and aggressive. He quickly identified Brandon Inge and Jhonny Peralta as players he wanted to retain and Joaquin Benoit as the reliever he wanted to acquire, and made them offers they couldn’t refuse. Now he has reportedly lured Victor Martinez to Detroit with a four year, $50 million deal. Was Dombrowski’s decision to outbid the rest of the market a good one?

To some extent, it depends on how the Tigers plan on using him. Martinez is a good hitting catcher, but he turns 32 in a month and his defense behind the plate is not well regarded. The Red Sox used him both at first base and designated hitter over the last two years, where his bat is not nearly as productive relative to the peers that man those positions. In order to justify a $12 million per year salary, Martinez has to catch, and do so pretty regularly.

Given the amount of money involved, I have to think that the Tigers are going to use him that way. With Miguel Cabrera around, Martinez probably won’t play a lot of first base in Detroit, and there were too many other quality DH candidates on the market to spend this much money to get Martinez to fill a bat-only role. I’m guessing the Tigers see this as a Jorge Posada type deal, where they expect to get a guy who can catch for the first few years of the deal and a guy who can DH for the last year or two.

As a catcher, Martinez was a +4 win player for Boston last year, so he certainly has the ability to upgrade the position for the Tigers. But backstops have notoriously sharp aging curves, and the Tigers should not expect to get the same production from him in his age 32-35 sesaons that he produced earlier in his career. I would estimate his WAR over the next four years to be something in the +3.5, +2.5, +1.5, +1.0 range, with those last two years coming as a DH.

Even a more conservative aging curve will have Martinez as an average-at-best player by the last two years of the deal. Even if we see significant salary inflation going forward, Martinez is likely to be dramatically overpaid in the last year or two of this deal. Once you factor in loss of their first round draft pick (the Tigers surrendered the 19th pick in the 2011 draft, as Martinez was a Type A free agent), he certainly came at a steep cost.

The Tigers are essentially borrowing from the future to improve their present. Martinez should provide good value for the cost in 2011 and maybe in 2012 as well, and they’re hoping that the near term benefit outweighs the long term cost of having some dead money on the books at the end of the deal. If they can put together a contending team in either of the next two years, it could well be worth the gamble. If they don’t overtake the Twins, however, Martinez’s contract may hold them back from making moves that would allow them to do so in 2013 and 2014.

Besides what Martinez does for the Tigers, I’m also interested in what his deal means for the market and the crowd’s ability to estimate expected contracts. The Contract Crowdsourcing we did for Martinez nailed this deal, as you guys projected a 4 year, $48 million contract as the median, which¬†is almost exactly what he got. Kudos to you guys.

My initial reaction was that this deal signified more evidence of inflation in the market, as my personal expectation was that he would sign for around 3/36. But as this contract is in line with the crowd’s expectations, and you guys didn’t appear to bake in much inflation to your projections for other players, I don’t think we can make too many proclamations about the market just yet.

I still think the moves to date suggest that prices are going to be higher this winter, but it’s possible that we haven’t seen league wide inflation, just Detroit-related aggressive spending. We’ll have to see what the market does once Dave Dombrowski is not a buyer.