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?

Where Were You Five Years Ago?

Five years ago tonight, nearing the end of a 71-91 disaster which cost Jim Tracy and Paul DePodesta their jobs, the Dodgers trotted out this legendary lineup, losing 7-4 to Arizona in 12 innings.

Batting AB R H RBI BB SO BA
Willy Aybar 3B 6 1 2 0 0 1 .389
Oscar Robles SS 6 1 2 0 0 0 .271
Jeff Kent 2B 5 2 2 3 1 0 .296
Olmedo Saenz 1B 4 0 1 0 1 0 .274
Yhency Brazoban P 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000
Antonio Perez PH 1 0 0 0 0 1 .312
Duaner Sanchez P 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000
Jose Cruz RF 6 0 2 0 0 0 .248
Mike Edwards LF 4 0 0 0 1 1 .256
Jason Phillips C 3 0 1 0 0 0 .235
Hong-Chih Kuo P 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ricky Ledee PH 0 0 0 1 0 0 .283
Jason Grabowski PR 0 0 0 0 0 0 .159
Steve Schmoll P 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000
Hee-Seop Choi 1B 1 0 0 0 0 1 .252
Jason Repko CF 5 0 2 0 0 1 .217
Jeff Weaver P 1 0 0 0 1 0 .235
Brian Myrow PH 0 0 0 0 1 0 .333
Mike Rose C 2 0 0 0 0 0 .200
Team Totals 44 4 12 4 5 5 .273
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/23/2010.

It’s a pretty horrifying list, especially if you remember following that season closely. That collection (Kent aside) of has-beens, never-was’s, and holy-crap-its-Jason-Grabowskis played 27 games in September of 2005.  They went 9-18, averaging 3.93 runs per game.

After yet another dreadful (and let’s be honest, boring) performance from this year’s club tonight, managing just three hits, they’ve played 19 games in September. They’re 5-14, and averaging 2.47 runs per game.

This year’s club won’t lose 91 games; at worst they can lose 89, and even that’s unlikely. But this really illustrates my primary concern with naming Don Mattingly manager before the season was over, perhaps even moreso than his lack of managerial experience. This team totally rolled over and died weeks ago, and it seems that Joe Torre and Mattingly are completely powerless to do anything about it. After everything that’s happened this year, and with the way the season is ending with a whimper, this team needed a new presence – even if it wasn’t Tim Wallach.

The 2005 had far less talent than this year’s club, I think we can all agree. That debacle is probably only going to end up being just slightly worse than this year’s, and that caused multiple heads to roll. Yet, we want to keep the same culture headed into next year because… well, why, again?

******

I had an interesting and somewhat unexpected realization on Twitter tonight, after I posted a random fact about Russell Martin‘s line over the last two-plus years.

Me:

Random stat: since July 1, 2008, Russell Martin is at .248/.352/.330 (.681), with 16 HR in 1291 PA.

I_Alivandi:

@MikeSciosciasTI and what day did don mattingley take over as hitting coach?

Me:

Ha. July 18, 2008. RT @I_Alivandi: @MikeSciosciasTI and what day did don mattingley take over as hitting coach?

For the record, I don’t believe there’s a 1:1 correlation there. If there’s anything responsible for Martin’s decline, it’s that Grady Little and Joe Torre played him until he was about to drop. Still, I posted those stats to show that his subpar performance has been going on for quite some time, and it’s striking to see how closely the dates do align.

Martin & Paul Exit, Ellis & Johnson Return

Giving credit on this to Seth of dingersblog.com:

Russell Martin underwent MRI today, right hip labral tear, he’ll be re-evaluated tomorrow. Sounds like he’s out a while

Tear? That doesn’t sound good. Dylan Hernandez followed up with:

Russell Martin to the 15-day DL with right hip labral tear; Reed Johnson activated.

This comes after Xavier Paul was optioned back to AAA in order to bring up A.J. Ellis, though you could really read it as “Martin for Ellis, Paul for Johnson.”

Yet Garret Anderson survives. And Scott Podsednik & Ryan Theriot are hitting 1-2 again. Actually, it’s worse than that. You know I don’t post nightly lineups here, but good LORD:

Podsednik LF
Theriot 2B
Ethier RF
Kemp CF
Blake 3B
Belliard 1B
Carroll SS
Ausmus C
Padilla P

All that’s missing is Anderson in RF and you’ve got the worst-case scenario, though this is pretty close. Meanwhile, Jay Gibbons homered again for ABQ tonight. We’re supposed to have confidence because… why, exactly?

Let’s Pack It In

Credit where credit is due: Ted Lilly was excellent last night. After allowing an early home run to Miguel Tejada, he retired twenty in a row and left having struck out five without issuing a walk. Now why, after just seven innings and 87 pitches, Joe Torre felt the need to replace him (once again, it’s not like Garret Anderson offers more at the plate than your standard pitcher) to squeeze another inning out of Hong-Chih Kuo is beyond me, but that’s pretty much par for the course, isn’t it?

So good for Lilly, and good for us. While I didn’t like the trade for a variety of reasons, none of them were because I thought Lilly was useless; he’s certainly an improvement on what Carlos Monasterios would have offered from that slot. Unfortunately, Lilly’s nice outing was somewhat obscured by all of the other bad news from yesterday, and there was quite a bit of it.

Injuries!

1) Jeff Weaver was placed on the DL with left knee tendinitis, and – stop me if you’ve heard this before – had concealed the injury from coaches for about two weeks, which I’m sure had nothing to do with his allowing ten earned runs in his last five games.

2) Manny Ramirez had what was termed “a setback” in his rehab, and no date has been set for his return. At this point, I’d be surprised to see him back before the end of August, which means those who advocate trading him should probably look for something else to do. Update: Buster Olney, via MLBTR,  notes that players on the DL cannot be passed through waivers. I’d say the chances of Manny moving at this point are maybe 5%.

3) Russell Martin felt pain in his hip on an awkward slide last night and is headed for an MRI. While I’d usually joke that his absence wouldn’t really hurt the lineup that much, he did have the only two RBI to back up Lilly.

4) Perhaps worst of all, Rafael Furcal strained his back in Monday night’s game and required an MRI as well. He’s hoping to avoid the DL for now, but won’t play tonight either. Let’s not speculate too hard here, but when you have ever heard news that Furcal’s back hurts and had it end well?

The offense!

If not for the injuries and Lilly (and Kuo and Jonathan Broxton), the bigger story here would be that the offense, once again, was non-existent. Scott Podsednik and Ryan Theriot combined to go 1-8, with Podsednik 4-24 and Theriot 1-12 as Dodgers. Boy, who could have seen that coming? It’s not just them, of course, since Matt Kemp and Casey Blake each went hitless (though each walked, and scored on Martin’s hit), but once again the offense contributed nothing in eight of the nine innings.

With Manny no closer to returning and now Furcal & Martin possibly on the shelf, things don’t look like they’re headed in the right direction on the offensive side. And Torre’s not helping, because apparently he’s learned nothing from the Juan Pierre experience – it doesn’t matter how fast Podsednik and Theriot are, you simply cannot bat them 1-2 in the lineup if you expect to score any runs.

I get, of course, that Furcal’s absence doesn’t help him fill out the lineup card. Still, no one had a higher OBP in yesterday’s lineup than Jamey Carroll, and it’s not particularly close. Since Carroll looks like he’s going to be playing for the foreseeable future, he has to be hitting higher in the lineup in order to give the middle of the order a prayer of having people to drive in.

Of course, when the bottom 3rd of the lineup could be Ausmus-Theriot-pitcher, and the only reliable threat (Furcal) has been subtracted, it’s hard to get excited about any part of the lineup.

The draft!

Remember back in June, when the Dodgers drafted highly touted high schooler Zach Lee, and the pick was widely panned because Lee had a commitment to LSU and was considered unsignable? Yeah, about that…

Dodgers no closer to signing top pick

LOS ANGELES — There haven’t been any conversations between the Dodgers and first-round Draft pick Zach Lee since shortly after Lee was selected, assistant general manager of scouting Logan White said on Tuesday.

Lee, a 6-foot-4, 195-pound right-handed pitcher from Texas, was considered to be a difficult sign going into the Draft because of a commitment to play quarterback at Louisiana State and reported bonus demands in excess of $3 million. A day after the Dodgers took Lee at No. 28 overall in June, LSU issued a statement reaffirming Lee’s desire to play college football.

“We had get-to-know-you dialogues when we first drafted him, and that’s it,” White said. “… He likes football, he likes baseball. He’s a good kid.”

Granted, most of these negotiations do tend to go right to the deadline; you’ll notice that most of the other first-rounders haven’t signed yet either. Still: wonderful.

Which all means…

Yesterday’s win aside, the Dodgers are still seven games out in the wild card, and any hopes they have for postseason play rest on them putting together a historic run. With the offensive performance and the injuries piling up, does anyone really have faith in that happening?

It’s hard to say this, but it’s time to be realistic. Lilly’s debut was nice, but it only covered up more offensive shortcomings, and now without Furcal, Martin and Manny this team really has no prayer. I never thought I’d say this three days after the trading deadline, but it’s time to sell. See what’s out there for guys like Lilly, Podsednik, Octavio Dotel – maybe even Vicente Padilla, Hiroki Kuroda, and Casey Blake, if you could get out from under his salary for next year. I’d rather finish ten games out with pieces for the future, than six games out with nothing to show for it.

******

Update: Found this on Olney’s blog today, and thought it was interesting. Former catcher (and ex-Dodger Brent Mayne) checks in from time to time with Olney about the finer points of catching, and today they were discussing Carlos Santana getting destroyed by Ryan Kalish while blocking the plate in Boston. Mayne was asked if he thinks catchers should block the plate at all, and, well, you’ll see the part that caught my eye.

“I think catchers should do it — BUT learn how to do it right. I believe if you make the play correctly (which Mayne goes into extensively in his book, ‘The Art of Catching’) you end up with some momentum going into the play (as opposed to being a sitting duck) and you end up as low as you can get without laying down. Which is super important because, if you’ve ever played football, you know the lowest guy usually wins. My technique also gets your knees into a safe position … a position that if you’ve hit the knee will bend in the direction God intended it to bend. Unfortunately for Santana, he did the goofy ‘hockey goalie, throw the leg out’ thing. You’ll also see Russell Martin making that same move and I’ll guarantee the same thing will happen to him as Santana one of these days. I actually don’t even consider that ‘blocking the plate’ … it’s more like just getting your leg in the way. And it’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

Nothing Good Came From Last Night

There’s absolutely nothing good I can say about Chad Billingsley‘s start last night, despite his claims to the contrary, so I won’t. Really, all I can do is offer you some backup to defend against his detractors, and that’s that his FIP is only 3.45, while Dan Haren‘s is 3.81. Billingsley’s ERA is so high in large part because he’s suffered through a career-high .347 BABIP – and because the bullpen generally hasn’t done a great job of keeping his inherited runners off the board.

Still, coming after Clayton Kershaw‘s lousy start the night before, it’s hardly an inspiring start to the second half. What is it with the Dodgers in St. Louis? Playoffs aside, I’m pretty sure they haven’t won there since 1972.

Of course the big news coming out of last night were the injury concerns with Manny Ramirez and Russell Martin. Starting with Manny, he took his at-bat in the top of the first and never made it into the field, having apparently strained his calf. Again.

There’s no news yet on whether he’ll head to the disabled list, but my guess is that it’s probably pretty likely. He’s having a hard enough time staying healthy as it is, so you’d think they wouldn’t want to make him play while injured and just exacerbate the situation. Jon Weisman points out that if that’s the case, the Dodgers are suddenly looking thin: Reed Johnson is also on the DL, and the only healthy position players on the 40-man roster are Ivan DeJesus Jr. and Trayvon Robinson.

Robinson, 22, has actually had a very good season at AA: .382 OBP and 29 steals thus far. But he’s also struck out once per game at that level, and unlike Xavier Paul, I do consider him someone who needs to play every day right now, so I wouldn’t want to start his clock just to fill out the bench for a week or so until Johnson is ready to return.

No, if you do have to replace Manny from within, you have to do it by recalling a non-roster player killing the ball at ABQ – Jay Gibbons, Jamie Hoffmann or John Lindsey. None are on the 40-man roster, but the Dodgers have three open spots, by my count, and that’s without even considering the one that’s about to open up when George Sherrill is gone. One will be needed for Brad Ausmus – more on him in a second – but roster space isn’t an issue.

All have nice numbers at ABQ, which should be taken with a huge grain of salt: Hoffmann has an .804 OPS, Gibbons .920, and Lindsey an absurd 1.140. Hoffmann has the advantage of having been with the big club before, and he’s an excellent defensive outfielder. Lindsey’s numbers are crazy, but he’s limited to 1B, while Gibbons can play 1B or the corner outfield spots.

Obviously, the hope is that Manny doesn’t go on the DL,but there could be a silver lining if he does; if one of these three gets called up (I’d go with Gibbons due to his being lefty and able to play more than one spot) and they make a good impression, it could go a long way towards getting Garret Anderson off the team when Manny and Johnson are healthy again.

******

The other injury concern is with Russell Martin, who had to leave last night’s game with a swollen left thumb. Here’s the best part, and stop me if you’ve heard this before:

Martin hadn’t informed the team medical staff of the nagging issue, which he said he had been dealing with for several days

Aaaannd… facepalm. How many times have we heard this before – that a player doesn’t let the team know he’s hurt – and how many times has it ever ended well? Tony Jackson’s story implies that it doesn’t seem to be enough to send him to the DL, but I almost hope it would, because that’s the only way he’s going to take any time off. I wouldn’t think it possible, but he’s actually been worse than ever over the last month (.184/.297/.237 in 22 games) so I really don’t see the point of allowing him to try to play through this – it’s not helping him or the team.

As for Ausmus, he’s expected to be activated within the next week barring any setbacks. I assume A.J. Ellis is starting today – I mean, he has to, right – and if Martin hasn’t improved by the time Ausmus is ready he needs to be put on the DL, even if he doesn’t like it.