Victor Martinez was the unquestioned leader of the Cleveland Indians. Although he didn't have a "C" sewn on his uniform, everyone in the clubhouse knew who was in charge. He grew up in the Indians organization, signing at a very young age. He made a difficult transition from infielder to catcher, then progressed through the minors with clockwork efficiency, arrived in the majors at the age of 23, stuck there at 24, and became the starter at age 25. He was there during the painful rebuild, the division runs, the almost-magical playoff run of 2007, and the valleys in between. With the exception of an injury-plagued 2008 season, he posted at least a 115 OPS+, all while playing the most difficult position on the diamond. Here was a core player by any definition.
The 2009 Indians, despite Martinez and many other very good position players, weren't a good team. The short answer was that their pitching was awful; the long answer will have to wait. The pitching problems were not confined to the major-league level, but through the minors as well. So while the Indians had a good core of both young major-league and minor-league position players, they lacked the pitching to compete both this season and probably in the seasons to come. So, in order to match the pitching talent with the existing everyday core, the Indians traded several valuable players who were eligible for free agency within the next couple seasons. In essence, they attempted to recreate the several years' successful drafts they never had.
Victor Martinez unfortunately was a prime candidate for trade because he was a valuable player with an affordable contract. Martinez is going to make $6.2M this season and, if his option is picked up, $7.5M. For a catcher who can hit like he can, that's a relative bargain. For the Boston Red Sox, who had needs both at catcher and first base and who could also afford to take on Martinez's contract, Victor has been on their radar for what seems like several months. For the Indians, the Red Sox were a great fit, since they had a deep farm system with lots of pitching prospects. For a time, the top prize for the Indians seemed to be Clay Buchholz, a pitcher on the cusp of sticking in a major-league starting rotation, but judging from some of the comments made by Mark Shapiro after the trade, I don't think he was ever seriously part of the negotiations. Even large-market clubs now place high value on prospects ready to step into the majors, especially starting pitchers.
So the trade instead was headlined by Justin Masterson, who has been inducing grounders as a reliever in the Red Sox pen for a couple years now. The Indians will immediately start stretching him out into a starting role, and he should be in the rotation for good next season. The other two prospects are farther away, but both have power arms and therefore have the cherished upside that the Indians were looking for in this trade season. Nick Hagadone is just returning from Tommy John surgery, but is already throwing in the mid-90s. He's seen as a potential starter if he can develop a changeup. Bryan Price was a high draft pick in 2008, and this season he was striking out 9.8 batters per 9 innings in the Carolina League.
From a rational standpoint, the trade makes sense. The Indians get themselves both immediate help in the rotation, along with two high-ceiling pitchers that could help down the road. But as a fan, I hate the trade. Not only is Victor being traded, he's being dealt to the Boston Red Sox, a scale model of the Evil Empire. I hate that the MLB economic landscape is such that medium- and small-market teams cannot make mistakes without dealing players like Victor Martinez to fix them, while teams in larger markets correct their mistakes by indirectly or directly buying replacements. I hate that this trade was made, but I also understand that it had to be made.