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People v. Russell Martin
In baseball free agency, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. Fans who will do anything to keep their favorite players and fans who have no problem kicking any player to the curb.
This is Part 8 of our series looking at upcoming free agents for the Mets and Yankees and arguing for and against keeping them.
(Insert the "Law & Order" clang, clang here, just in case you didn't already catch the reference.)
Russell Martin is a catcher who will be 30 years old at the start of the 2013 season. He turned down a reported three-year extension worth about $20 million from the Yankees prior to the 2012 season, as he wanted a raise over his $7.5 million salary in 2012. Non-tendered by the Dodgers after the 2010 season, he signed as a free agent with New York and has played in the Bronx the past two seasons.
Martin is a three-time All-Star with a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger (both in 2007). He finished ninth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2006. In seven seasons, he's hit .260 with a .351 on-base percentage and 93 home runs. With the Yankees, Martin has a .224 average with a .317 OBP and 39 home runs.
Even after trading prized catching prospect Jesus Montero last offseason, the Yankees still have a good deal of organizational depth at catcher. Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart both have considerable MLB experience, and the Yankees claimed Giants catcher Eli Whiteside off waivers on Tuesday to add to that veteran group.
Austin Romine, a well thought of receiver, is fully recovered from a back injury which sidelined him most of last season, and his track record in the minors suggests he can hit well enough to stick in the majors. The 2012 Minor League Baseball Analyst describes him as “an athletic backstop” who “makes contact with a short, simple stroke.”
Deeper in the minors waits Gary Sanchez, a power-hitting backstop whose potential may outweigh that of Montero when all is said and done. He hit 18 home runs split between Single-A and Single-A Advanced last season, driving in 85 runs with a .290 average. The Analyst notes that he “owns a high ceiling with ability to smash balls to all parts of park.”
So with this depth at the position, and with the Yankees under an ownership mandate to lower payroll, why would the Yankees give a multi-year deal to a catcher who's regressed offensively? His batting average has dropped each of the last five seasons, from .293 in 2007 to .211 in 2012. His OBP has fallen each of the last four seasons, from .385 in 2008 to .311 in 2012.
The Yankees already have several good defensive catchers in the organization. They can spend their money better than by committing millions to another one who also has hitting troubles.
Despite the warm bodies the Yankees have on their roster, “depth at catcher” is a deceiving term.
The combined career average for Stewart, Whiteside and Cervelli is .236 (314-for-1330). That group has hit 19 home runs in 540 games. Russell Martin surpassed that total in 133 games in 2012.
The Yankees have several backup catchers, but no clear No. 1. Romine is an unknown, a prospect, but not one who anyone expects to be the catcher of the future. Sanchez is still a few years away.
The free agent market at catcher isn't particularly attractive, filled mostly with retreads and sprinkled with the likes of Mike Napoli (who also had a down offensive year) and A.J. Pierzynski, who isn't well-liked and will be 36 years old in 2012.
Compare those choices to Martin, a superb defender in his prime who the Yankees pitching staff enjoys working with. A catcher who hit 21 home runs in 2012 and crushed 18 homers the previous season. A good baserunner who managed 14 stolen bases the past two seasons, despite manning a stereotypically slow-footed position.
Martin will never be the cleanup man in the lineup. But it's not time for him to clean out his locker either.
If the Yankees are serious about cutting payroll, then they're going to have to let players like Martin go.
The $7 million or so that he'll cost could be put to better use shoring up an uncertain outfield, or investing in veteran, proven backup infielders to spell the aging Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Martin's defensive job can be done by several players in the organization already. His home runs will be missed, but his inability to hit for any kind of respectable average the past two seasons may have sealed his ticket out of town.
And opened up a spot for a new backstop.