Russell Martin is going from a franchise that has won a record 27 World Series titles to a franchise that has endured a record 20 consecutive losing seasons.
Yet Martin, a catcher, said Friday he is excited about joining the Pittsburgh Pirates after finalizing a $17 million, two-year contract as a free agent. Martin spent the last two seasons with the New York Yankees.
“It’s going to be different,” Martin said. “It’s going to be a challenge but I think the Pirates have a young and electric club. There is a lot of talent there and I don’t think we’re as far away as winning as maybe people outside baseball think we are.”
The Pirates are hoping Martin can help get them at least over .500. Their string of losing seasons continued this year when they went from 16 games over .500 at 64-48 on Aug. 8 to a 79-83 finish by losing 35 of their last 50 games.
“There is a lot to like about Russell,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “He handles a pitching staff well, he calls a good game, he throws well, he is capable of hitting the ball out of the ballpark. We’re very excited to be able to add him to our club.”
Martin, 29, hit a career-low .211 last season for the Yankees but also finished with a career-best 21 home runs. Rod Barajas, the Pirates’ primary catcher in 2012, batted .206 with 11 homers.
“It wasn’t a very good year,” Martin said, “and I know I’m capable of doing better.”
Martin gets a $2 million signing bonus payable by Dec. 31 and salaries of $6.5 million next season and $8.5 million in 2014.
Part of the allure of coming to Pittsburgh for Martin was having the chance to play for manager Clint Hurdle. The two developed a relationship at the 2008 All-Star game when Hurdle, then with Colorado, was the National League manager, and Martin, then with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was on the NL squad for the game at Yankee Stadium.
“I always liked the way Clint’s teams played when he managed Colorado and I have a lot of respect for him,” Martin said. “I just like being around him and I trust him. I’m looking forward to playing for him.”
In addition to adding power to the lineup, the Pirates are hopeful Martin can strengthen their defense.
Martin threw out 24 percent of runners attempting to steal last season, nailing 20 of 83, while Barajas threw out just 6 percent at 6 of 99. The major-league average was 27 percent.
“Russell has good arm strength and a quick release but we’re going to have to give him help, too,” Huntington said. “Our pitchers have to do a better job of holding runners.”
Right-hander Jeff Karstens was designated for assignment to clear a roster spot for Martin. Karstens was 5-4 with a 3.97 ERA in 19 games, including 15 starts, last season while spending time on the disabled list with shoulder and groin injuries.
The signing reunites Martin with right-hander A.J. Burnett. The two played together with the Yankees in 2011 before Burnett was traded to Pittsburgh last February.
Martin was offered a $20 million, three-year deal by Yankees general manager Brian Cashman during spring training and did not accept it. New York did not make him an offseason offer.
“I like Russell Martin,” Cashman said Friday at a charity event in Stamford, Conn. “I’m a big Russell Martin fan. But ultimately we have a lot of holes to fill and we have to be very careful how we spend our money. The market for Russell was aggressive as it should have been and again our focus has been our pitching.”
In other news, the Baltimore Orioles acquired infielder Yamaico Navarro from the Pirates for minor league pitcher Jhondaniel Medina. Pittsburgh also dealt right-hander Chris Resop to Oakland for minor league right-hander Zach Thornton.
Resop was 1-4 with one save and a 3.91 ERA in 61 relief appearances with Pittsburgh last year.
Thornton went 4-0 with 16 saves and a 4.53 ERA in 48 relief appearances for Class A Stockton last season.
The 25-year-old Navarro hit .160 with one homer and four RBIs in 29 games with Pittsburgh last season. He is a career.279 hitter over seven minor league seasons.
Medina is a 19-year-old right-hander who pitched primarily in the Gulf Coast League in 2011.