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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Russell Martin?

I feel like this post requires an Irish drinking song by way of Newfoundland. It’s set at a wake, but it’s a hopeful wake.

The wake is, of course, for Russell Martin’s bat. It actually expired some years ago, but revived under mysterious circumstances this April, when he hit .293/.376/.587. The credits on the zombie movie rolled some time ago, and since then he has disappeared more thoroughly than Crystal Pepsi: 45 games, 184 plate appearances, and .185/.299/.287 rates. That he has drawn 25 walks and hit four home runs in that helps, but it’s not enough. The crash-‘n’-burn is particularly painful with Alex Rodriguez laid up for a month. Unless Eduardo Nunez again displays unsuspected offensive abilities, Derek Jeter shows that 3,000-day was no fluke, or both, the lineup overall will need to pick up the slack.

Thing about that .185/.299/.287. The league average is .254/.321/.398. The league average for catchers is .235/.305/.377, which is horrible, but not as horrible as what Martin is doing. Thanks to Martin’s big April, the Yankees are just a bit below average in overall catcher production. It also helps that the Rays (John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach), the Angels (Jeff Mathis and Hank Conger), the Mariners (Miguel Olivo), A’s (Kurt Suzuki), and Twins (Drew Butera and Joe Mauer) have gotten next to nothing out of their backstops. That doesn’t mean that Martin has been good as much as that he’s been less bad. Given his current trajectory and the likelihood that some of the aforementioned will at some point rebound to their career norms, Martin should plunge past them at some point soon.

Of course, Martin could rebound as well, but the question is, what will he rebound to? The reason Martin was available to the Yankees—besides the dysfunctional disaster that is the Dodgers—is that he hadn’t hit in 2009 or 2010. The Yankees seemed to have tapped into something the Dodgers and Martin had missed back in the spring, but that no longer seems to be the case. April is the outlier, 2009-2010 the real deal, and what’s happening now, which includes a batting average on balls in play of .200, seems more like a continuation than a transient slump.

Before you start agitating for change, you have to add in a certain element of risk, not that the new guy won’t out-hit Martin, because whoever he is, if he was at all worth trading for, he probably will, but that you don’t cause disruption to the pitching staff. There is no way of knowing if Martin has had a magical effect on a pitching staff that ranks in the top three in the league, or if the staff would suddenly nose-dive if he was no longer available to them, but it’s something that has to be taken into consideration.

If the Yankees were to decide that they can’t risk Martin hitting .180 for another two and a half months, what can they do? Jesus Montero would be a defensive risk. Austin Romine, down in the dumps at Double-A, is hitting 293/.352/.396, which doesn’t translate into anything much in a major-league context. His defensive skills are not felt to be polished. Out and around the majors, you might find the Reds willing to give up old Ramon Hernandez, but buyer beware: in his Cincinnati years, Hernandez has hit .327/.401/.463 at home, .254/.315/.400 on the road. Perhaps the Cubs would finally punt on the inconsistent Geovany Soto, who is hitting an odd .179/.293/.302 at home this year. Soto is almost precisely the same age as Martin and has some of the same problems—perhaps the two teams could exchange one head-scratcher of a backstop for another. I can almost smell the White Sox thinking of taking offers on A.J. Pierzynski, though this hasn't been rumored; it just makes too much sense. Pierzynski is basically a platoon singles hitter with no patience. It's not much. Is it better than Martin? Again, the way things are, almost anyone would outhit Martin. Bring back Joel Skinner!

This seems to bring thing back to Montero. Once he’s off the disabled list, it would make sense to try him in a 60-40 timeshare with Martin, one in which Montero is protected from running teams like the Rays and Rangers. If he hits and the pitching staff doesn’t react with revulsion, great. If not, they can always go back to the way things were or try for Plan B at the trading deadline. But time is running out—the Yankees have two weeks to experiment, assuming Montero’s back will cooperate.