While everyone in New York and around the country is focused on the free agent the Yankees didn’t sign, let’s talk about the one they did. MLB.com’s Alden Gonzalez reports that the team has signed catcher Russell Martin to contract of unknown terms (presumably one year), and he’ll now take over as their regular starting catcher with Jorge Posada shifting into the designated hitter role. The move impacts not just those two, but uberprospect Jesus Montero as well.
Martin was fantasy gold back in 2007, hitting .293/.374/.469 (.368 wOBA) with 19 homers, 87 RBI, 87 R, and even 21 steals. At 5.8 WAR, he was the second most valuable catcher in baseball that year behind Posada. Martin hasn’t been able to repeat that level of production, with some believing that a heavy workload is the culprit. Joe Torre ran Martin out there for 145 games behind the plate in 2007, then another 149 in 2008 and 137 in 2009. Those 431 games at catcher are far and away the most by any player, 17 more than runner-up Jason Kendall. During that time, Martin’s power has fallen off a cliff…
The good news is that Martin is moving to a park gearing towards homeruns, especially to rightfield. Over the last three seasons, the right-handed hitter owns a 57.0% fly ball rate and 20.1% line drive rate to the opposite field, which could lead to good things when combined with Yankee Stadium’s short porch. It’s also entirely possible that he’ll be stuck with a sub-.100 ISO against the ridiculous pitching crop in the AL East.
Thankfully, Martin’s value lies in his ability to get on base. He’s consistently walked in ~11% of his plate appearances in each of this full seasons, keeping his OBP respectable (.350-ish) even though his AVG has dipped to .250 or so. The Yankees are going to score a boatload of runs as usual, so Martin should both score and drive in plenty of runs even if he’s buried in the eighth or ninth spot in the order. Some BABIP luck (he’s been down around .285 the lat two years despite a .302 career average) could have his AVG back into the .270′s.
There are some playing time questions we have to consider. Martin is coming off a hairline fracture in his hip that may or may not impact him next year. Yanks’ manager Joe Girardi can also fall in love with backup catcher Francisco Cervelli (unsurprising since he’s a mirror image of the kind of player Girardi was) on occasion, further cutting into his at-bats. I really like Martin as a buy low candidate, especially at a position that traditionally has little fantasy impact.
Everyone looks for the guys playing other positions while maintaining catcher eligibility, and Posada figures to be one of those players in 2011. He can still hit (.248/.357/.454, .357 wOBA with 18 homers in 2010) and figures to remain healthier now that he’s free from the rigors of catching; Posada missed close to three weeks last season (total) with a fractured foot, knee and finger issues, all related to foul tips or hit by pitches. The fans project a .264 AVG with 18 HR and 73 RBI next season, very reasonable production if he stays on the field. Posada still lags behind the big three fantasy catchers obviously, but he’s fine option as the fifth or sixth backstop on your board.
Until Martin signed, the Yankees were prepared to at the very least give Montero a shot to win the catching job in Spring Training, if not let him start the season as the top guy. Now his role changes completely. The 21 year old had a .375 wOBA in Triple-A last season (well over .400 after the All Star break) and could end up back there to start the 2011 season, if he’s not traded for some mythical young ace starter that never seems to be available or exist. Regardless of what happens, Montero is unlikely to be a fantasy factor early in the season, but if you’re in a deep mixed or AL-only league and want to stash him on the bench for later, well be my guest. I did the same thing with Carlos Santana last season and it worked beautifully, at least until he got hurt.
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