My man-crush on Russell Martin is no secret. Honestly, what's not to like? Martin plays the game with a tenacity unrivaled by his contemporaries. His father is a busking saxophonist (thus, the middle-name Coltrane). His mother is a French-Canadian lounge singer. Drafted as an infielder in the 17th round (2002), Martin converted to catcher in 2003 and raced through the Dodgers minor-league system. A flurry of fortuitous injuries helped him become the Dodgers everyday catcher in 2006, at the age of 23. He played so well the Dodgers were forced to trade top prospect, Dioner Navarro, who they'd long expected to fill that roll. Martin rewarded them with back-to-back All-Star campaigns in '07 and '08. He also won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger and, by the age of 25, looked on track to be among the best players at his position for a very long time to come. Two years ago we could've had a legitimate argument about who's future was brightest, his or Joe Mauer's?
Unfortunately, those days are long gone. In '09 his production fell off the table, mainly due to a complete absence of power. In his first three seasons, Martin had averaged 14 HR and a .433 SLG. Not Mike Piazza, certainly, but enough pop to keep opposing pitchers honest. In '09 his slugging percentage dropped to an abysmal .329 and he hit just seven dingers. His offensive woes prompted speculation that he was playing through an injury. Perhaps Grady Little and Joe Torre had leaned too hard on their young backstop. Martin led major-league catchers in innings from '07 to '09, by a relatively wide margin. Had his heavy workload and Charlie Hustle disregard for endangering his body caught up to him?
Such rumors gained steam this past year, when Martin failed to rebound offensively and then had his season cut short by a hip injury. At this point there are those who suggest that Martin may be a candidate to be traded or even non-tendered prior to the arbitration hearing in the spring. The Dodgers are notably cash-strapped by the McCourt divorce and face potentially expensive negotiations with Chad Billingsley, Hong-Chih Kuo, and James Loney. Martin made just over $5 Million in 2010 and would probably be due for a small raise as well. If the Dodgers aren't confident he can return to some semblance of his previous self, it may be fiscally safer to part ways, even if it means getting nothing in return for a two-time All-Star.
I certainly don't believe that to be the case. Martin is still young (he'll be 28 in February) and catchers of his caliber, on both sides of the ball, are a truly rare commodity. Yes, the Dodgers would have to commit $6 or $7 Million to an uncertain proposition in 2011, but they could very well end up with a player worth more than twice that much, who would then have an abundance of value leading into his contract season in 2012. Sure, if Martin repeats his '09 and '10 performances, he'll have zero market next winter. But trading him now would still be a dramatic case of "selling low." Even teams desperate for catching aren't going to give the Dodgers anything more than spare parts for a player coming off of major surgery. Best-case scenario they might be able to trade disappointments with a team like the Red Sox or White Sox, but they don't have a natural replacement for Martin waiting in the wings and they have too many other holes to fill this offseason to be creating them at positions where there are extreme market limitations.
It is much easier to find a competent left-fielder or third baseman than a competent catcher. And Martin is, at worst, competent. His WARs in '09 and '10 were consistent, 2.2 and 2.1 respectively, which is actually middle of the pack for everyday catchers (16 of 23 in '10, 11 of 23 in '09). His defensive contributions, as well as his decent OBP, make him a virtual lock to outperform free agents like A. J. Pierzynski, Bengie Molina, and Rob Barajas, who would be the Dodgers other alternatives. Martin remains a popular player among the Dodger faithful, at a time when support for the franchise is being tested. He also possesses many of the qualities which new manager, Don Mattingly, also represented when he was a player, and their relationship is reportedly a strong one.
I certainly can see the cause for skepticism, but I think it's too early to throw in the towel on Russell Martin. I hope to see him back in blue in 2011.
UPDATE: Apparently Ned Colletti didn't see it this way. The Dodger did not offer Martin a contract for the 2011 season and he is now free to negotiate with other teams. Colletti stated that L.A. "is pretty far down the road" in negotiations with a replacement. The potential upgrade over Martin in the remaining free agent pool is Miguel Olivo.
I expect most GMs will view Martin neck and neck with Olivo. With several teams still unsettled at catcher, he should generate plenty of interest. Those who missed out on Victor Martinez will no doubt see some consolation in a younger, defensively superior backstop who has significant offensive upside. Thus, Boston is a natural suitor, as are the Mariners, Mets, Astros, Padres, and even the Yankees, if they choose to delay the arrival of Jesus Montero.