Thursday, September 23, 2010

Russell Martin as a Potential Catching Option For AL Central Teams?

Catching is always at a premium in baseball, and that's no different now. Two teams in the Central, the Twins and Indians seem to have their catching solutions at hand with Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana. But for the other teams in the division, answers are less readily apparent. Near the outset of the 2010 season I wrote a series of articles about the Central's promising young catchers.

Since then, Santana has graduated to the Majors and made an impressive debut by posting a .868 OPS despite a poor BABIP before succumbing to a nasty injury that required surgery. Twins top-prospect Wilson Ramos was dealt to the Nationals where he's provided decent production in limited work.

The other two players, Alex Avila and Tyler Flowers have struggled to varying degrees. Avila has an OPS of just .654 , despite a much improved LD rate with consistent K and BB rates. Flowers has a more respectable .768 OPS in AAA, but that came replete with a 35% K rate that simply wont come anywhere close to cutting it in the Majors.

Of course, we also have to consider the emergence of Wil Myers in Kansas City as one of the better prospects in the game. He's still a few years away however and there are persistent questions as to whether he can stick behind the plate. But we've talked about him recently.

The more immediate catching concerns are with the White Sox and Tigers franchises. Two teams who are already competitive but who could use upgrades at catcher.

The White Sox at one point early in the year were tasked with the difficult decision of whether to deal starting catcher AJ Pierzynski as the team was floundering heading into June. They didn't and went on to post rattle off an impressive run to take the lead in the division. But with the Sox now officially eliminated, and Pierzynski headed toward free agency, attention must be drawn to the future of the position.

Flowers is an option, but his peripherals make him unlikely to succeed at the Majors offensively, while his defensive shortcomings don't seem to have improved by a considerable margin during his time at AAA this season. Unfortunately, he's the only realistic option in the system. Josh Phegley has been decent, but he also has just 72 at-bats at AA and has the same strikeout issues that plague Flowers, with significantly less power.

The Tigers are in a somewhat better position. While presumptive starter Gerald Laird has had two incredibly disappointing seasons in a row, and it appears he'll fail to crack the .600 mark for OPS this year. Yikes. Avila has been better (which isn't exactly saying much) but his season as a whole has still be a disappointment.

So given their proximity to competing, combined with the poor performance the two teams have received from the catchers position, it's not exactly a stretch to assume the teams will be looking to bolster their offense here. With what is shaping up as a poor catching crop in free agency - perhaps led by John Buck off a career year - I'm guessing GMs Kenny Williams and Dave Dombrowski will be scouring other teams rosters to see if they can find an upgrade.

One possible answer could be Russell Martin.

Martin came onto the scene back in 2006 by hitting .282 with a .792 OPS and 10 home runs as a 23 year old rookie. He backed up that performance by posting a .843 OPS in 2007 and a .781 in 2008.

Since then however, Martin's production has fallen off sharply and someone who was once viewed as one of the best young catchers in the game - compared favorably by many in the media to Joe Mauer - has seen his stock drop rapidly as his .680 OPS in 2009 and his .679 mark with 10 games remaining this season are well below average, even by catching standards.

Martin's offensive decline, combined with the fact that he'll be entering his final year of arbitration - where he'll be due for a raise on his 5.05m salary - and the Dodgers precarious ownership/payroll situation have conspired to make what once would've been almost unthinkable, a non-tender, perhaps likely.

The Dodgers are in a position where they're likely going to be forced to trade someone to make payroll for 2011. The most widely speculated names have been those of Jonathan Broxton and Matt Kemp. Two players who have also been disappointing to some degree, but who are also likely to fetch more in return.

However, it's also possible that they simply non-tender Martin this winter, making him a free agent. The other possibility would be a trade. The Dodgers could try and unload Martin (and the salary he'll make in 2011) for likely little more than minor league filler.

In either case, Martin could make sense for the Tigers or White Sox. Despite Martin's relatively poor performance, he's still been a fair margin better than any of their incumbent options appear to be. He also comes with something you won't find amongst the rest of the free agenct crop.


While Martin's production stats have seen sharp declines the past couple years, I still see a lot to like.

Consider, when Martin experienced his most success during his first three seasons, he posted the following marks:

BB Rate (2006/2007/2008):
9.6% - 10.8% - 13.8%

K Rate:
13.7% - 16.5% - 15.0%

LD Rate:
19.9% - 17.5% - 19.4%

And now the marks for the past two seasons:

BB Rate (2009/2010):
11.7% - 12.4%

K Rate:
15.8% - 18.4%

LD Rate:
20.5% - 20.6%

As you can see, the rate stats really haven't changed much at all. Fundamentally, Martin remains the same hitter, posting above average strikeout, walk, and line drive rates. Another important rate, ground ball rate, remains unchanged as well. There is little reason that performance metrics that for three years supported solid production should suddenly be so incapable of doing so in the future.

The ground ball rate, it should be mentioned is the only real concern. It's always been consistent, and bad. Between 48.4% and 51.1% every year of his career. The obvious concern with ground ball hitters from a sabermetric point of view is that they rarely turn into extra base hits. They also tend to hold down a players BABIP if they have poor speed. However, Martin has never had exceptionally poor foot speed. He's actually quite a bit above average as catchers go.

I don't think Martin can replicate the successes he had when he broke into the league, but he should still be capable of providing league average offense and above average defense. To that end, even as he's posted poor offensive showings the past two years, he's posted WAR marks of 2.2 and 2.1 in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

With the Tigers set to shed Laird's 3.9m contract, and the White Sox dropping Pierzynski's 6.25m - there should be payroll available for both teams to pursue Martin via free agency or a trade, should they prefer to do so.

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