The Dodgers on Friday found a solution for their vacancy at catcher: They brought back Russell Martin, sending two minor leaguers to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for their former backstop.
The Blue Jays also sent $16.4 million in cash to offset the majority of the $20-million salary that Martin, who turns 36 in February, will make in the final season of a five-year contract he signed in November 2014.
Martin batted .194 with a .663 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 25 RBIs in 90 games last season. He and Austin Barnes are expected to serve as the Dodgers’ stopgaps until catching prospects Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith are ready for the major leagues.
The move does not preclude the Dodgers from pursuing coveted Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, who remains available via trade. But as they formulate a plan for the 2019 season, the Dodgers could justify moving on from the loss of free agent Yasmani Grandal by having Martin and Barnes share duties.
Barnes will arrive at spring training in Arizona next month trying to distance himself from the .205 batting average and equally dismal .290 slugging percentage he had in 100 games last season. The Dodgers are betting on his potential, but he’ll have to earn his share of the workload.
“Obviously if Barnes were coming off the season he had in 2017, it’d be easier to answer,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said during a conference call. “We still believe that there’s a lot of upside there and that he will be a significantly better player than he was in 2018. We’re making that bet. But what that means, exactly, he’s got a lot of time to figure that out.”
Enter Martin. The Dodgers selected him in the 17th round of the 2002 draft and received five productive major league seasons from him. After debuting in 2006, he played in 667 games, was a two-time All-Star and won one Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger award before landing with the New York Yankees and eventually the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Although his slugging output declined, Martin maintained a .338 on-base percentage over the last three seasons. The Dodgers are optimistic his approach, which Friedman characterized as elite, will allow Martin to bounce back.
Martin is determined to prove that he can. He said in a conference call that he’s put in extra offensive work this offseason.
“This year, it’s a big year for me,” he said. “I need to have a good year or else nobody’s gonna wanna have me. It’s really simple. The motivation’s there and the purpose is there. I’m gonna be as professional as I possibly can be and that hopefully translates to some good results.”
Since last playing for the Dodgers in 2010, Martin has logged innings at second base, third base, shortstop and left field for the Blue Jays. He also became an All-Star in 2015, a year in which he slugged .458 during the regular season but was held to only four hits and one RBI in eight postseason games.
Dodgers executives who have remained in the organization since Martin’s free-agent departure are familiar with his postseason struggles: He hit .224 (15 for 67) with nine walks and nine RBIs in 19 playoff games from 2006 to 2009.
The Dodgers are also familiar, and comfortable, with Martin’s ability behind the plate. Three of his four best defensive seasons came in a Dodgers uniform, according to Baseball Prospectus’ rating for fielding runs above average adjusted for position.
“Over time, I think I have somewhat polished my whole game,” Martin said. “I think I’ve gotten probably a little bit better at receiving, learned some tricks behind the plate when it comes to blocking … overall the understanding of how to manage a pitching staff and get the best out of each individual pitcher.”
However, Martin has rarely been efficient at cutting down would-be base stealers. After leading the American League by throwing out 44% of runners in 2015, he allowed a league-high 61 stolen bases the next season. He ranks second among active catchers with 817 stolen bases allowed.
“Obviously at that position the offensive bar isn’t extremely high,” Friedman said. "There’s obviously a lot more that goes into a catcher having value as well. We feel like between [Martin] and Barnes that we’ll get good offensive production and really good production behind the plate that will contribute to our team’s success.”
The Blue Jays received right-handed pitcher Andrew Sopko and infielder Ronny Brito from the Dodgers to complete the transaction.
“We like the team that we have in place right now but that doesn’t mean that we’re not focused on ways to continue to improve it,” Friedman said. “Whether that’s before the season starts, whether that’s as the season is in progress it’s too difficult to say right now.”