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.