A Decision Looms on Russell Martin

Usually, I wait until after the season is over to start looking at arbitration decisions and roster construction. Of course, the season hasn’t been over until mid-October in each of the last two seasons, whereas this year it ended sometime in July. So let’s get to it, shall we? The Dodgers are going to have a ton of questions this offseason, but perhaps none bigger than this:

What do you do with Russell Martin?

I’m going to preface this by saying I’ve gone back and forth on it in my head about 40 times, and as I sit here beginning to write this, I still don’t know what my answer would be. I’m hoping that putting all these thoughts down helps me figure it out.

Let’s start with the facts. Martin will turn 28 years old in February, and he’s eligible for arbitration for the 3rd time this winter. As a “Super Two”, he’s one of the few players who can go to arbitration a fourth time next year, before becoming a free agent after 2012. He’s making $5.05m in 2010, and is in line for a raise despite missing from August 3 on with a torn labrum and fracture in his right hip.

There’s a multitude of facts working against Martin right now. Most pressing is the hip injury, because while he was fortunate enough to avoid surgery, there’s not very many comparables we can look back to. It’s not totally uncommon for baseball players to deal with an injury like this, and to come back healthy, but none of them have been catchers (as Will Carroll told Jon Weisman when the injury occurred).

Even if Martin is able to come back at full strength – a risk, since you won’t know until the spring – there’s the continued worry about his decreasing production. It may seem like a sudden drop from the exciting player we saw in 2006 and 2007, but Martin’s actually been a pretty mediocre bat for over two years, since mid-2008. As I mentioned earlier this week, Martin has hit just .248/.352/.330 (.681), with 16 HR in 1291 PA, since July 1, 2008.

Put another way, Martin’s SLG in 2009-10 was .330. Everyone’s favorite Little Leaguer wearing his dad’s uniform, David Eckstein, managed .336. He’s slowed down on the bases (net SB last four years: 12, 12, 5, 4) and even his OBP, an outstanding .385 in 2008, has settled into the .350 range over the last two years. Really, his 2009 (.307 wOBA) and 2010 (.306 wOBA) were in many ways identical at the plate; that seems to be the level he’s settling into, and it’s not great.

However, in much the same way James Loney gets penalized for being an average bat at a position that demands far more, Martin gets the benefit of being mediocre at a position where the benchmark is terrible. Really, this part can’t be overstated, and it’s the only reason we’re even having this conversation. His .679 OPS this year is good for just 175th in baseball, but (according to baseball-reference) it was worth 1.4 offense-only WAR. Meanwhile, Cardinals 2B Skip Schumaker, who had a very similar .676 OPS, gets only 0.6 oWAR because the bar is higher for 2B than for C. (I can’t even imagine what a .676 would be at 1B. -6 oWAR?)

On defense, well, catcher defense is notoriously difficult to quantify, though most observers would agree that Martin was a quality defender in his glory days, was sub-par in 2009, and had improved this year. Really, any hopes we had about seeing better defense behind the plate dissipated when Brad Ausmus, A.J. Ellis, and Rod Barajas allowed 31 straight stolen bases immediately after Martin’s injury. (Yes, I know that pitchers play a large role in allowing steals. That’s still not good, and it only made Martin look better.)

Despite that poor offensive production, Martin is tied for 16th among all catchers (min. 300 PA) in WAR over the last two seasons, making him roughly a middle-of-the-pack backstop. Though his power is all but gone (42nd of the 52 qualifying catchers), that’s generally a luxury from the position, and his OBP (11th) is more than adequate. Remember, though, that if you let him go, you have to replace him, and most of the catchers above him on that list aren’t available. Don’t expect to see Joe Mauer, Brian McCann, or Victor Martinez in Dodger blue any time soon, right?

If Martin leaves, the options are thin. Despite A.J. Ellis‘ recent hot streak and Rod Barajas‘ excellent first impression, neither should be seen as anything more than backups, and I can’t express that feeling enough about Barajas and his career .283 OBP. The free agent market is slim other than Martinez, populated mostly by career backups in their late 30s and guys like John Buck and Gerald Laird with their own warts.

I don’t think there’s much doubt that, if healthy, Martin is preferable to the other alternatives. But will he be healthy? And is he so much better that he’s worth the extra $2-$3m he’ll probably make over many of those guys? On a team with a healthy payroll, that might be a risk worth taking; on the Dodgers, $6-$7m to a hole at catcher may be fatal. 

So your options are these:

1) Take him to arbitration and accept that he’ll make approximately $6m, if not more, in 2011.

2) Non-tender him and try to replace him with cheaper options.

3) Try to trade him and make him someone else’s problem. ESPN’s Buster Olney recently said that Martin would have “some” value, but I can’t see how it’s a ton considering his production, salary, and health.

4) Attempt to sign him to a deal which would likely trade a lower salary in 2011 for a guaranteed 2012 or beyond.

For his part, Martin claims he wants to stay in Los Angeles, though it’s not as though he’d really come out and say he’s dying to leave right now anyway.

Personally, I think they’ll keep him. As for me… if those are my choices, I’d try to sign him to a two-year deal, lowering his 2011 cost. Avoiding two more rounds of arbitration is probably the best solution for both sides, and  with the catching market being so sparse, and with nothing coming up in the system (thanks, Ned!), it’s hard to see another great option. I’d probably attempt to retain both Barajas and Ellis if possible for depth, though. If that kind of deal doesn’t work out, then I’d probably non-tender him (or trade him for what I could get) rather than risk giving up over $6m to him in arbitration. The health risk for declining production is just too great that price.

What about you?

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