Did The Dodgers Make A Mistake In Non-Tendering Russell Martin in 2010?

A quick final thought on Russell Martin, who will be catching for the next five years in Toronto, and therefore not Los Angeles: I’m not sure if $82 million is the record for a player who was once non-tendered, but it has to at least be in the conversation. As you may or may not remember, the Dodgers decided to let Martin walk in the fall of 2010 rather than go to arbitration, after three very good seasons (2006-08) and two mediocre ones (2009-10). They paid to keep James Loney instead, then decided that Rod Barajas / Dioner Navarro would be an acceptable catching tandem in 2011.

Needless to say, that decision was controversial at the time, and now that the Dodgers have lost Martin for a second time — though of course not so directly, because who knows if they were ever in this to begin with — there’s at least a few media members and fans who are opening up old wounds and saying that the Dodgers erred badly by letting Martin go four years ago. That was a different planet, really, because that was an organization run by Frank McCourt and Ned Colletti, with Joe Torre having been their most recent manager, so this is all bygones, of course, but it’s probably at least remembering the actual facts that went into that call.

Remember, first, that Martin had badly injured his hip on August 3 of that year, had missed the season’s final two months, and was reportedly not yet even able to bear full weight when the tender decision came around, a terrifying proposition for a catcher. Remember, second, that there were concerns about how much of his alarming offensive decline — wRC+ of 122 to 112 to 87 to 90 — had been due to his taste for the Los Angeles nightlife, as much or more than Torre’s overusage of him. (Remember “third base days off?” Good lord.) Remember, third, that no one, at least publicly, had started talking about what pitch-framing was or who was any good at it.

Remember, finally, that I can go back and see how I felt about this without the benefit of hindsight:

Really, I wasn’t going to be able to argue this decision either way. If they’ve decided that risking $6m to a declining catcher coming off a serious hip injury isn’t a wise choice, that makes total sense. On the other hand, the catching market is so poor – really, is anyone excited about Rod Barajas and Miguel Olivo? – that locking up a young catcher with above-average on-base skills is a more than defensible decision as well. Earlier this offseason, I’d been leaning towards letting him go, though as the market proved to be more expensive than we’d thought and as low-OBP Juan Uribe was signed, I’d been waffling on that in recent days.

If Martin is replaced by someone like Olivo or Barajas, this could be a team with a serious OBP problem. On the other hand, maybe there’s a happy ending and they can re-sign him at a lower price later this winter. Either way, it’ll be an interesting story that’s far from over. (Update: Dylan Hernandez reports the team is “close”  to re-signing Barajas. You could do worse for a backup, so okay – but you couldn’t do much worse for a starter. That still doesn’t preclude Martin’s return.)

and the next day, on reports Colletti would still try to bring him back but perhaps not as a full-time catcher:

This bit of news dismayed me more than anything else, because I’ve been hearing fans suggest that Martin should play 2B or 3B for months, and I’ve come really close to writing a post about why that’s silly several times. His mediocre offensive output is acceptable only because he’s a catcher; I don’t even have to bust out the stats to confirm that he’d be one of the weakest-hitting players in the league at almost any other position. “But if he catches less, he’ll be less worn-down and his offense will come back!”, people claim. Will it, though? He’d have to basically return to his peak 2007 level for him to be valuable in other positions, and it’s pretty unfair to expect that a guy coming off a serious injury and who would have to learn other positions is going to do that.

and two weeks later, when he signed with the Yankees for a bit less than the Dodgers would have owed him in arbitration (after turning down their $4.2m offer):

it looks like Martin overvalued his worth, which is hard to do in this winter of crazy spending. We knew that the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays were all in on Martin, and that the Red Sox ended up not offering as much as the Yankees did. I don’t know what the Jays were offering, but it’s doubtful they were topping both the Sox and Yankees, so when Martin spurned the $4.2m offer from the Dodgers, that may have been a mistake.

Finally, this does somewhat validate the team’s decision to non-tender Martin. Had he been tendered a contract and gone to arbitration, he would have made $5m at the very least and possibly up to $6m. I’d said all along that was too much to risk on an injured catcher, and they appear to have read the market correctly.

None of this is to bash Martin, who was a very popular Dodger and someone I was interested in seeing return, and I hardly have to tell you that “defending McCourt & Colletti” isn’t really in my job description. It’s just that to say that letting him go was an obvious mistake, well, it wasn’t. A team that was about to have serious financial difficulties couldn’t risk tying up funds in an injured, seemingly declining catcher.

Now, if there was a mistake, it was not being able to do better than Barajas, falling into their usual Juan Rivera / Marlon Anderson / Brandon League trap of “this guy was awesome for two weeks after we got him, I bet that will sustain forever!” and continuing to invest in the perpetually disappointing Loney, who was also arbitration-eligible. You didn’t have to spend the money on Martin. You did have to spend it more effectively than you did.

Anyway, that’s all in the past now. I just like to remember the past accurately. Now Martin is a Blue Jay, and the Dodgers still have a huge question mark behind the plate — as I’ve often said, I believe A.J. Ellis is better than he showed in 2014 and is valuable for his off-field contributions, but an upgrade is still required as a starter — and the free agent market is just obliterated after Martin. Yasmani Grandal, please.

About Mike Petriello

Mike writes about lots of baseball in lots of places, and right now that place is MLB.com.