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Russell Martin’s Future With the Dodgers

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Los Angeles Dodgers’ young catcher Russell Martin ranked among the best at his position in baseball. After two disappointing seasons, including an injury-shortened 2010, Martin is a potential non-tender candidate for the team. Whether or not a non-tender would be the right decision depends on Martin’s likely 2011 performance relative to his salary, where the Dodgers see themselves in relation to contention, and what they think of Martin’s health.

Martin impressed both with the bat and behind the plate in 2007 and 2008. He was durable, as well, starting about 140 games each season at catcher. He started 133 games in 2009, but his offense fell off from his .368 wOBA in 2007 and .351 wOBA in 2008 all the way down to .307 2009 and .306 in 2010. His walk and strikeout rates have stayed above average, but the main problems have been BABIP and especially his power outage, the latter of which began already in 2008. Defense for catchers is hard to measure, but most reports on Martin have been positive.

A wOBA in the low-.300s is pretty bad compared to average, of course, but for a catcher, particularly in 2010’s run environment, it is actually pretty decent. Take a look at Martin’s value breakdown from the last two seasons. In 2009, he was 8.9 batting runs below average, and in 2010 (in limited playing time) he was 3.6 below average. However, in each of those seasons his positional adjustment was 10 and 6.8 runs, respectively. In other words, despite the poor offensively seasons measured against league average, he still well enough to be an above average player at catcher. Even in these down seasons, Martin was around 2 WAR, which is especially noteworthy for 2010, in which he played in less than 100 games. Taking into account recent performance, regression to the mean, aging, and all the rest, CHONE’s last update saw Martin as about a true talent three win player per 150 games. Given that even the most durable catcher rarely plays 150 games and also aging, we’d estimate Martin to be a 2-2.5 win player for 2011. Not a star, but definitely worthy of starting.

Martin’s 2010 salary was a bit over five million dollars in his second year of arbitration; his likely arbitration settlement for 2011 would probably be at leat six million, probably closer to seven million. That’s a fair chunk of change, but that’s probably cheaper than a two or two-and-a-half win player would come on the free agent market. It is not a huge bargain, and if the Dodgers were in the process of rebuilding, non-tendering (or trying to trade) Martin would make sense. However, the team’s moves so far this offseason, e.g., the Ted Lilly contract, seem to indicate that they are trying to contend in 2011. That’s not an unreasonable assessment; the Dodgers won’t be the favorites in the 2011 National League West, but the talent spread in the division is close enough that the Dodgers could be in the hunt. Given the dearth of free agent catchers likely to improve on Martin’s performance for the price, non-tendering Martin would be a strange decision.

The wildcard is Martin’s health. Martin’s agent is naturally eager to downplay the effects of the hip injury on his client going forward. I’m not a doctor, so I’m not going to comment one way or the other on how it might effect Martin. We can only assume the Dodgers are doing their due diligence as well as they try to make a decision on their catcher. But if the Dodgers are serious about contending in 2011, barring some sort of trade, concern about Martin’s ability to bounce back from injury is the probably the only good reason to non-tender him.