Russell Martin & Free Agent Catchers

Jorge Posada spoiled the Yankees for more than a decade, providing well-above-average production at a position where the expected output is next to nil. Russell Martin took over catching duties in the Bronx last year after being non-tendered by the Dodgers, giving his new club a .325 wOBA (100 wRC+) in 476 plate appearances. There are no great metrics for catcher defense, but Martin has a reputation as a strong defender and reportedly lived up to that billing last year. All told, he gave his team approximately three wins more than a replacement level backstop.

The Yankees retained control of their new catcher as an arbitration-eligible player this year, signing him to a one-year pact worth $7.5 million in January. The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Barbarisi reported yesterday that the two sides first tried to hammer out a three-year contract, but talks never went beyond the initial stages. Chad Jennings of The Journal News has a quote from Martin…

“My agent and the Yankees talked a little bit about an extension,” Martin said. “Including this year, they were talking about three years. That’s where the conversation ended. They didn’t really throw any numbers out there. Well, they did, but I’m not going to throw them out there.”

Given the dearth of quality catching around the league, it would behoove the Yankees to revisit talks at some point to try to secure one of the game’s rarest assets — a quality catcher in his prime years — for the foreseeable future.

Martin, 29, gets his offensive value from his power (.170 ISO in 2010) and patience (10.5 BB%), two skills far ahead of the average AL backstop (.145 ISO and 8.5 BB% last year). Chances are his 15.9% HR/FB will come back to Earth a bit in 2012 and dampen his power numbers, though that isn’t a huge deal. Yankee Stadium is hitter friendly, but not that hitter friendly. Martin threw out 40 of 135 attempted basestealers last year (29.6%), and his performance looks slightly better if you remove the since-traded and notoriously slow to the plate A.J. Burnett (33-of-106, 31.1%). The various catcher framing studies indicate that he saves runs on borderline pitches as well. Martin might not be the six-win player he was in 2007 anymore, but he’s clearly an above-average option behind the dish.

Moreso than any other position, above-average catchers in or approaching their prime years almost never hit free agency. Martin did last year, but that was a unique situation because he was coming off a major hip injury and had seen his production decline in recent years, in part due to a heavy workload earlier in his career (133 starts behind the plate from 2007-2009, age 24-27). He was also getting expensive as a Super Two, and the Dodgers wanted to move on. If you don’t want to consider last offseason’s version of Martin as an above-average, in-his-prime free agent catcher, you have to go all the way back to Ramon Hernandez during the 2005-2006 offseason to find one. These guys just don’t hit the open market.

Next offseason could be quite the exception though. In addition to Martin, Mike Napoli, Miguel Montero, and Yadier Molina are also scheduled to become free agents. Chris Iannetta can void his $5 million club option for 2013 and join them as well. Perhaps all those potentially available catchers are the reasons why the Yankees wouldn’t commit to Martin for the next three years, but we know those guys aren’t guaranteed to be available. All four are obvious candidates for extensions, and even if they do become available next winter, the bidding on the open market will drive prices sky high.

Getting Martin under contract at a reasonable salary — three years, $30 million or so? — can help the Yankees avoid the unfavorable situation of having to compete for a catcher on the open market, even if they are the Yankees and can outbid everyone. Perhaps top catching prospect Austin Romine has a big year in Triple-A after being freed from Jesus Montero‘s shadow and makes this all moot. Given the sometimes lengthy adjustment period catchers need when jumping from the minors to the big leagues, I’d bet against it. Martin might not hit like Napoli or defend like Yadi, but he’s a valuable player in his own right and keeping him off the market should be an item on the Yankees’ agenda over the next nine months.




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Mike writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues and baseball in general at CBS Sports.


15 Responses to “Russell Martin & Free Agent Catchers”

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  1. Damon says:

    Russell “Best shape of my life” Martin

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  2. Richie says:

    Your top prospect has reached Triple A, and you’re arguing you SHOULD?? sign the incumbent veteran to a 3-year contract? This makes no sense at all. Especially especially for the Yankees, who, as you point out, can just buy themselves a replacement in the event said top prospect tanks at Triple A. Of course they wait and see if Romine will be ready next year.

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    • Ben Hall says:

      Romine seems to pretty much have fallen off the prospect charts; I don’t think anyone would refer to him as a “top prospect” at this point. Though people still like his defense, he doesn’t seem to do anything particularly well offensively. I haven’t heard anyone say that they think he’s going to hit much in the majors.

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    • Bill says:

      Romine is nowhere near the Yankees top prospect, he is not even the Yankees top catching prospect.
      Most prospect lists have him from 6th through 8th best of Yankee prospects, and he is not at all a lock to be good enough to be a strong starting catcher on a championship caliber team.
      Romine might grow into an above average starting catcher, but that is his best case scenario, not his most likely scenario.

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      • alcan says:

        Romine did a hell of a job after being called up out of the blue last year when the yanks were on the west coast. Defensively he is the best catcher the Yankees have. He does struggle offensively but so do 75% of catchers in the league. Yankees have been spoiled with offensive minded catchers. Romine would be the back up to Martin this year except they want him to get a full AAA year at Scranton and work on his bat which he cannot do sitting on a bench. If martin were to go down you can bet Romine would be called up to take his place behind the dish. Anyhow, Martin and Romine are just bridges to Sanchez who is a couple of years away, another slugging catcher phenom the yanks have in their system… reason they were able to trade Montero.

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  3. Anon says:

    Martin might not hit like Napoli or defend like Yadi

    I could argue he might not hit like Yadi either.

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  4. siggian says:

    Maybe the Yankees new sense of fiscal responsibility played a role. They just dumped a serviceable (though well overpaid) Burnett to save a few bucks and not committing to Martin means they have a little more flexibility in the next off-season.

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    • Bill says:

      second worse ERA of any qualified starter over the past 2 years isn’t really all that serviceable for a team trying to win the toughest division in baseball, especially since they have better options to take his rotation spot

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  5. Preston says:

    Martin is only 29, but he has a lot of wear on his body. The injury issues that caused the Dodgers to release him did not go away after one strong season. I think it’s prudent to wait one year. Not only will the Yankees have a chance to see if Martin is healthy and productive, but how Romine progresses. If Austin has 300 really good PA’s at AAA and makes a good showing at the end of the season as a back up to Martin then why not let him start. Also JR Murphy and Gary Sanchez are also really good catching prospects, so if they have good seasons offensively and defensively then that further mitigates the need to resign Martin. Plus even if none of their prospects progress maybe Miguel Montero or Yadier Molina make it to FA and are better options to spend the money on. So waiting is the best strategy.

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    • AA says:

      The injury “problem” was a hairline fracture in his hip that needed rest to heal. The Dodgers were idiots to non-tender him and overpay Barajas.

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      • Dean says:

        It is consistent with a half dozen other idiotic moves over the course of the McCourt-Colletti stewardship of the Dodgers. They are arguably the worst front office in baseball.

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    • Preston says:

      Agreed that the Dodgers were idiots. He was more than worth the risk with two cost controlled years left. But that doesn’t mean he’s worth a long term extension into his thirties. A hip injury for a catcher scares me, especially when a lot of his value comes from his defense. I’m not saying they shouldn’t sign him, but if they can put it off another year to know he’s healthy than it would be prudent to do so.

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  6. Comegys says:

    FWIW, Martin hit well in April and August last year and horribly the other 4 months:

    April/August: .289/.349/.599/.948
    Other 4 months: .208/.309/.298/.607

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  7. Nick says:

    hes got those moves like martin

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