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Hot Stove – Easy Bake Oven Edition

When the Yankees contemplate the 2012 roster, Russell Martin’s name is going to come up – for about five seconds. He’s going to be on the team and, if healthy, the opening day catcher.

He’s cheap, requires only a one-year commitment, and he said something heartwarming about the Red Sox. All this and he was a slightly above average catcher last year, too. Of catchers with 400 PAs, he was top ten in fWAR, and just below top ten in wOBA (.325) and wRC+ (100). That 100 wRC+ means, after adjusting for park effects, Russell Martin was exactly average offensively in 2011.

There are no likely circumstances in which the Yankees are better off in 2012 without Russell Martin. Even if the Yankees somehow acquired Joe Mauer for Jesus Montero and some magic beans, they might as well keep Martin on board for 2012 as an expensive but high quality back-up.

A Mauer trade isn’t going to go down, however. So what variables should the Yankees consider when it comes to Martin?

Cost. He made four million last year and is under team control for one more year. They must tender a contract to retain their rights and at least head to binding arbitration. But that should be no problem. Martin could command a significant raise and still be cheap for a decent starting catcher.

Length of commitment. The Yankees could try to negotiate a long-term contract with Martin, but why? He’s not good enough and the Yanks have cheaper, perhaps better, options on the horizon. The risk of losing him after 2012 while none of their other catching prospects pans out to replace him is far less damaging than the scenario of signing him long term only to have his adequacy block the development of the prospects.

The Yankees can control one more year of Martin’s career and that’s all they should sign up for at this point. Maybe a two-year deal would be even better, but I don’t see why Martin would want to delay his impending free agency to help the Yanks. If it so happens that Martin is also their best option for 2013 and beyond, they can address that with their wallet after they win the 2012 World Series.

Other Options. Despite blistering the ball for a month at the Major League level, the Yankees were scared to let 21 year old Jesus Montero catch more than a couple of pitches in September. Whether this was because they thought he would cost them vital games in their quest for the AL East crown or because they thought he’d hurt his trade value by exposing his poor defensive skills, neither indicates he’s storming to the top of the depth chart by opening day.

I don’t think it’s going to be a widely held opinion, but certainly there are some fans who think the Yanks should adios Martin to give Montero a trial by fire to become the next Mike Piazza. A trial by fire only works if you’re prepared to allow the prospect to burn. Montero’s bat is too promising to be used for kindling in that experiment.

The Yankees may someday pencil Austin Romine’s name into the opening day lineup, but in 2012, he should start in Scranton, not the Bronx. He’s got two seasons of AA under his belt, and he’s hit enough to stay on the radar screen, but not enough to skip a level. There’s no way either of those guys is going to be a better option at catcher than Russell Martin before next April.

Francisco Cervelli is right out.

Crazy Ideas. The DH slot opens wide if Montero wins the starting job. Which configuration gives the Yankees the best chance at the 2012 title? A catcher-DH-3B medley of Martin, Montero, Arod and Nunez? Or one of Montero, Cervelli, Arod, Nunez and David Ortiz?

Imagine this lineup: Jeter, Granderson, Cano, Arod, Ortiz, Teixeira, Montero, Swisher, Gardner. Swap Gardner and Jeter if you want. DH Arod against lefties if you want.  Ortiz was among the top ten hitters in baseball last year by wOBA (.405) and wRC+ (153); he’s going to be good next year too.

But Jesus Montero could prove within two weeks that he cannot handle the full time catching responsibilities. He could be the next Johnny Bench and, at 22, still struggle with full time duty in the Show. And if Montero fails completely, like we’ve been warned he will by 29 other teams and the scouting community at large, then Cervelli is the guy. Due to Arod’s fragility, he appears unable to play 140 games at third base. To keep him around all season in something resembling top form, he needs a lot of days at DH.

If this crazy idea worked out perfectly, the Yanks would be upgrading from Martin to Ortiz on offense while downgrading from Martin to Montero defensively. And if the plan fell apart, they’d be downgrading from Martin to Cervelli on both offense and defense while Montero, Arod and Ortiz shuttled between DH, the bench, the DL and AAA.

So the risk of cutting Martin loose so that David Ortiz could pepper the right field stands just isn’t worth it. If Montero improves over the year and the Yankees have an opening at DH, they will have another chance to acquire one at the trade deadline.

Martin’s ALDS performance was disappointing, and he’s a lousy hitter if his power returns to pre-2011 norms. But with Montero in the lineup and playing some catcher to boot, Martin’s offense should be even less relevant than it was last year. It’s possible that by the time Yankees are contemplating their next playoff roster, Montero could be the starting catcher.

Martin’s adequacy is exactly what the Yankees need right now. On the cusp of better options from within, he’ll do more than keep the spot warm; he’ll give the 2012 Yankees the best chance to win.

Categories:  1: Featured  Hot Stove  Jon DeRosa  Player Essays  Yankees

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1 Alex Belth   ~  Oct 20, 2011 9:28 am

I think he was solid. Occasionally gave them something with the bat but the pitchers seemed to like him and I figure he might be a good teacher for Montero. I'm eager to see him stay.

2 briang   ~  Oct 20, 2011 9:40 am

yeah, i liked him too, solid's a good word. as for his fizzling in the ALDS....add him to the list wit the others. he's hardly alone.

i predict more of the same from him as this past season.

3 Bronx Boy in NC   ~  Oct 20, 2011 9:45 am

Since I've bashed Martin's bat in this space and spoken up in favor of giving Montero a look-see behind the plate, I ought to clarify that I think Jon is spot-on here.

What I'd like for Montero isn't a "trial by fire" that would leave us weak every day behind the plate and perhaps sap his morale. Just enough of an "assay" to know whether we can ever put him back there at all.

There's a big difference between carrying Montero as a pure DH and considering him a part, even a tiny part, of the catching corps. Lots of potential ripple effects there, even if it's only late-innings or every fifth day.

Plus in a less rational, more old fogy sort of way, I'd still like to think of DH as something you do after your defensive skills have waned or been proven absent -- not something you do instead of ever finding out whether you have defensive skills in the first place. This is the major leagues, for chrissake. Grr, get off my lawn.

And I don't want to run Martin out of town by any means. When you've got someone burying splitters with men on, he's the guy I want back there. I just want a credible way to pinch-hit for him in the kind of pressure situations we saw earlier this month.

4 Yankee Mama   ~  Oct 20, 2011 10:00 am

I concur. While Martin's post season at-bats were nothing less than torture only root canal can rival, I agree that his overall contribution to the team was solid and positive. I would like to see him back. He is a smart player and if he makes the pitchers comfortable, then it's a no brainer, at least for 2012.

5 Jon DeRosa   ~  Oct 20, 2011 10:02 am

[3] Yes, agree, the Yanks should work Montero into the catching mix. I would give him one of the pitchers. I think Hughes would be the best choice, easiest pitches to handle. That's 1/5 of the games behind the plate - not a bad way to start. If earns more than that, great. If not, well at least they'll know what they've got.

6 Yankee Mama   ~  Oct 20, 2011 10:06 am

David Ortiz as a Yankee = Derek Jeter as a Red Sox. Doable, yes, but odd nevertheless.

7 ms october   ~  Oct 20, 2011 10:42 am

martin certainly seems to be a good defensive catcher and the pitchers did seem to like him (especially aj - though interestingly cc seemed to prefer cervelli).

a wrc+ of 100 from a catcher is not bad but it is a huge drop-off from what the yanks were used to in po's heydays.

i think martin got too many at-bats - both from the perspective of that bat is not one that needs so many at-bats but also it seems he wore down a bit which has been his typical pattern.

i really wish they would give montero 2 pitchers to catch next year. bart wold have been ideal, but hughes and someone else besides aj or nova would be okay.

8 ms october   ~  Oct 20, 2011 10:57 am

oh and as a follow-up i think girardi is more than willing to sacrifice the hitting portion of the catcher's job for the backstop portion of the cathcer's job.
hopefully not to the levels of mike scioscia, but i think more than many of us would be willing to go.

9 Bronx Boy in NC   ~  Oct 20, 2011 11:03 am

[3] Self-wrist-slap: I was moving fast and stumbled into using "we/us" when I should have been using "they/them."

I have enough trouble hanging around a league where you have to pay to play. :)

10 ms october   ~  Oct 20, 2011 11:21 am

[3] the pinch hit situation is very real.
look how washington didn't use torealba (sorry for butchering the spelling) last night when he was a more legitimate option.

11 kenboyer made me cry   ~  Oct 20, 2011 11:35 am

Martin had more than a few stellar games where he was the difference in the wins. He's tough, keeps most of AJs bouncers in front of him, handles the pitchers well, and is solid nullifying the opposing running game.

If you recall, he was batting close to .300 early in the season, with some HR pop. His fall-off could be due to gained familiarity from the opposing pitchers, but I suspect that oblique injury and other nagging aches and pains took their toll in the second half. Have belief that his bat will turn around next year when he is completely healed.

He's been an all star, has had a few great years, and will have a few more. The Yankees are fortunate to have him on the roster, and should look to keep him.

[9] I too have to watch that "we" when talking about the Yankees. I would love to be a part of the team, but besides picking up towels and handling some traveling details...what else could I offer?

12 briang   ~  Oct 20, 2011 12:00 pm

funny, lots of martin ALDS bashing.......what i recall though was a couple hard hits up the middle and a few deep fly balls to the track. his bat for a catcher is. 3 hits in 5 games and solid, solid contact at least a few other times. if he has five hits in that series we're singing a different song.....somebody please remind me what he did that was so horrific in the series.

13 briang   ~  Oct 20, 2011 12:09 pm

oh i just did some investigating.....i think the thing we're recalling most vividly is the bases loaded, one out situation where martin pops up.....that was bad but shit happens. put him up there again and he gets the run in. i recall the fly balls to the warning track and the hits.....call me an optimist.

14 monkeypants   ~  Oct 20, 2011 12:21 pm

[11] has had a few great years

Um, he had ONE great year, which wasn't even all that great. He's had three consecutive not great years, and at age 28 I don"t see him trending better.

Look, he's a solid ML catcher, above average when all is taken into account. But the Yankees really should try to see what they can get out of Montero, and in any case Martin will (should be?) gone after next year.

15 monkeypants   ~  Oct 20, 2011 12:22 pm

[11] If you recall, he was batting close to .300 early in the season, with some HR pop.

Or put another way, if not for his super hot April, his season last year would have been really, really bad.

16 T. Hawk   ~  Oct 20, 2011 5:55 pm

Martin is not a good hitter

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