Russell Nathan Coltrane Jeanson Martin in the Bronx

by Eno Sarris // 

The man with a lot of names is bringing his game to River Avenue: Russell Martin has agreed to a one-year contract with the Yankees. He’s not much of a consolation prize for losing out on Cliff Lee, but Martin still fills a need, and may even enjoy a bit of a bounceback in the Bronx. The move also means a lot for the organization, as minor as the signing might seem.

The team had already announced that Jorge Posada would function mostly as the designated hitter in 2011. He hasn’t hit well as a DH in the past (.223/.336/.361), but being relieved of the rigors of catching might allow him to play more often and have a mini-resurgence of his own. At the very least, it rids the Yankees of Posada’s subpar defense behind the dish. By announcing the move early, the Yankees basically admitted that they would spend the off-season looking for a solution at the position.

The speculation to date had been that the team would play Jesus Montero for the lion’s share of the at-bats at the position – speculation based on the strength of Montero’s bat. That bat is impressive: Montero just hit .289/.353/.517 in Triple-A, with 21 home runs…as a 20-year-old. That’s made even greater by the fact that the International League is one of the minors’ toughest places for offense.

Unfortunately, Montero isn’t known for his work behind the plate, and even after four years spent shoring up his footwork and receiving ability, he may not be long for the position. Some prospect gurus, like Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, are more blunt about his flaws. Goldstein has also pointed out that Montero would be larger than any other catcher in the game. Now with Lee in Philadelphia, Montero might actually be the main chip in a trade to net another starter for the Yankees. He’s gone from Opening Day starter to a possible trade candidate in the span of a month or two.

Cue Russ Martin. After peaking with a .293/.374/.469 line (with 19 home runs and 21 stolen bases) in 2007, Martin has seen his statistics wither away – down to last year’s .248/.347/.332 with five home runs and six stolen bases in a career-low 387 plate appearances. The good news is that Martin has retained his excellent eye at the plate – he continues to walk (12.9% career) and not strike out too much (15.8% career).

Mostly, he’s lost his power and speed. His speed may not return – it’s rare for a catcher to continue stealing bases long into his career, and Martin is coming off of a leg injury. Martin never had much power: At his peak (.176 ISO in 2007) he was only slightly above average (.150 most years). The last two years, his power has been middle-infield-esque, though (.079 and .085 ISO respectively).

Can he return to respectability in that category? Maybe. The park factor for right-handed home runs in Los Angeles was 92 last year, and in New York it was 110. To take advantage of the friendly confines, Martin will have to get more balls in the air. If he, perhaps, puts up a flyball percentage like the one he showed in 2007 (34.1%) rather than the one he had last year (28.3%), he could see a few more big flies in 2011.

With a little step back in strikeouts (last year’s 18.4% was a career high), and slightly better luck on balls in play (.287 BABIP last year, .302 career), Martin’s batting average might also improve in 2011. With his walk rate as it is, he’s still a boon in leagues that count on-base percentage. And even with reduced speed, he should steal a handful of bases. Martin is a decent bet for a slight bounceback. He’s a worthy late-round flyer in mixed leagues.

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