This past Winter, we heard that talks were going on between Russell Martin and the Yankees about a contract extension that would keep him in New York through 2014. The two sides ultimately tabled the discussion after failing to come to an agreement, making Martin a free agent at the end of this season. With the goal of a $189 million dollar payroll in the near future, the Yankees were willing to give Martin three years and $20 million dollars, which would have meant taking a cut in pay for the catcher.
It's probably not a reach to think that that is why there was no deal, but if Martin has another decently successful season in 2012, the price tag definitely won't be coming down. I don't think it's a secret to anyone that the organization loves basically everything Russell Martin brings to the team, but is locking him up for the next few years in the best interests of the club?
Jesus Montero now hitting his dingers for the Mariners means that the catching depth in the minors basically falls to Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez, with an honorable mention to JR Murphy. With Romine missing the entirety of Spring Training and the beginning of the 2012 season with a back injury, and Gary Sanchez starting the year at Low-A Charleston, it's pretty easy to see why the Yankees would see the benefit in keeping a guy like Martin around. His defense is heralded in seemingly every corner of the baseball-analyzing world, thanks to new information about the importance of pitch framing, and he gets rave reviews in the ever-unquantifiable area of handling a pitching staff. Russell Martin is not a perfect player, though, and after being spoiled for years with the offensive abilities of Jorge Posada and having the promise of Jesus Montero to continue that trend, Russell Martin's offense leaves a bit to be desired.
Numbers via fangraphs.
These numbers might be due to a few different things, like the fact that Joe Girardi basically ran Russell Martin into the ground for the first part of the 2011 season. The March/April numbers were very good, and August was impressive for Martin as well, but what about the not-so-good stuff in the middle? Pretty ugly. So far this season, he's yet to record an extra base hit and is relying solely on walks to be the slightest bit productive offensively.
I suppose you could argue, and those who are staunch supporters of catcher defense likely will, that Martin's defense made up for his dreadful May-July at the plate. Maybe that's true, but having a black hole in the lineup day after day in the American League East is not something that's so easy to justify for the long term, especially when things are as bad as June Russ was.
Having said all that, should the Yankees open their pockets at the end of 2012 to keep Martin around at almost any cost, or at least hope he has a bit of a rough season to help save some cash? There is certainly no guarantee that Mike Napoli ever sees free agency, but if for some reason the Rangers let him go, I'd have a really hard time arguing that I wouldn't prefer him over Russell Martin. His strength is his offense instead of defense, but he's not 2010 Jorge Posada behind the plate or anything crazy like that. In 2011, Napoli led all catchers with at least 300 at-bats in WAR (5.7 to Martin's 3.0) and in all three categories of the triple slash (.320/.414/.631). It was definitely Napoli's most productive season to date, but even regression to his career numbers would be very good for a catcher. The money is a concern here, because Napoli is off to a great start again in 2012 and will be looking for a contract that recognizes what he's done lately, but I can't help but think that if I had to spend the money on a catcher this off season, I'd want it to be Mike Napoli and not Russell Martin.
Can what Napoli does with the bat make up for not being as highly touted as Martin behind the plate? I'd argue that it can, and that Napoli would be far from embarrassing defensively. Unfortunately, the Rangers are probably too smart to let his offensive production walk away at the end of this season. If Russell Martin and the Yankees can't come to some sort of agreement and no other free agent is brought in, Austin Romine may likely be forced to take over until a better option (looking at you, Gary Sanchez) presented itself. That's not very comforting, considering that Romine doesn't bring much of any offense with him either. It would save money, though, which could tempt the Yankees since they are into the whole defensive catcher thing anyway.
Having heard over a year's worth of Cashman and company discuss how Russell Martin is basically the best thing since sliced bread, I have little doubt that we are looking at the catcher of at least the next few years, lengthy absences from anything productive at the plate and all. We can all dream about Napoli moonshots in pinstripes, though.
So, if you're the Yankees, do you resign Russell Martin, go after another free agent catcher like Mike Napoli, or hand over the job to one of the guys on the farm?