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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.