I love A.J. Ellis. I think A.J. is a great battery mate to Clayton Kershaw, and Ellis works with the Dodgers pitching staff very well. I once loved Russell Martin even more. Martin, I thought, would be the Dodgers catcher for years to come. Like A.J., Martin was the heart of the Dodgers over many years. He was a part of a core Dodger group which included Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. In fact Ethier and Martin made their Major League debuts within two days of each other (May 2, 2006 and May 5, 2006).
Martin was the Dodger catcher for five years, and he was an All-Star twice. In 2007, Russell won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award. Although Martin wasn’t nearly as productive in 2007 and 2008 for the Dodgers, he recently bounced back in 2014 having one of his best seasons since those early years in Blue. Martin hit .290/.402/.430 with 11 homeruns and 67 RBIs over 111 games behind the plate this past season for the Pirates. Martin is the best catcher on the free agent market, and the Dodgers should not hesitate in bringing Martin back to Dodger Stadium.
I’m not so much down on A.J. Ellis’s offensive struggles this past season as I am on his knee issues. I don’t think Ellis will ever match his breakout season of 2012 when he hit .270/.373/.414 with 13 homeruns, 52 RBIs and 65 walks in 133 games and 505 plate appearances. Since succumbing to two knee surgeries, Ellis has missed time in parts of the last two seasons (not including that freak trip over the Butera’s catcher’s mask during the Josh Beckett no-hitter celebration). Yet the 33-year old back stop does have value to the team whether it is only to catch Clayton Kershaw once every five days.
The Dodgers should non-tender Ellis but bring him back on a lesser contract. While Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi has praised A.J. Ellis, he didn’t give a clear answer to whether they are planning on tendering Ellis a contract.
"“He’s a leader on this team, he has relationships with the pitching staff and we’re very mindful of that,” Zaidi said."
Of course Clayton Kershaw has pushed for his buddy’s return. Anything the M.V.P. wants he shall get. Ellis will be back with the Dodgers, but he may not get a raise from the $3.55 million he earned this season after going through the arbitration process.
I feel as though A.J. Ellis does still provide value to this team, but he should not be the long-term solution for starting catcher. Going with absolutely zero offense production from the catcher spot again in 2015 should not even be considered. The Dodgers catchers were dead last in the Majors in batting average (.181), second to last in slugging (.261) and even with Ellis’s 53 walks, they were 26th in the Majors in OBP (.283).
Russell Martin’s beard belongs in L.A. Photo: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
Bringing back Russell Martin as the Dodgers’ starting catcher with A.J. Ellis as backup would be a huge bolster to their catching corps both offensively and defensively. Martin has always been a plus defender and an even better pitch framer which would only add another advantage for the Dodgers’ pitching staff both with their already excellent starters and their hopefully soon-to-be revamped bullpen. With a newly constructed front office which includes personnel who take statistical analysis seriously, pitch framing is a skill which is prized amongst stat focused baseball executives.
Russell Martin has a good arm as well. Martin caught base stealers at a 39% pace in 2014 and a 40% rate in 2013 with Pittsburgh. A.J. Ellis’s caught stealing percentage decreased by 19% from 2013 to 2014.
I wrote about the Dodgers catching depth earlier this offseason, and I still feel as though the catching depth should be strengthened since it is such an important aspect to the strength of a team overall. Good catching is hard to find as evident from the backstops the Dodgers had to use this past season including ear biter Miguel Olivo. While I thoroughly enjoyed Drew Butera‘s relief appearances, I think the Dodgers could definitely do better by signing a solid catcher like Martin for 2015 and beyond.
The Dodgers did recently sign 16-year old catcher/infielder Jerson Dometilia who hails from Willemstad, Curacao, the same hometown as Kenley Jansen. Julian Leon is still years from being ready. If the Dodgers sign Martin to a four to five-year deal, they could bridge the gap to these young catching prospects who would be ready by the time Martin is finishing off his contract.
The Dodgers don’t seem like they have much confidence in making Tim Federowicz the starting catcher any time soon, and this was evident by last off season’s signing of veteran Drew Butera. While FedEx would certainly be a decent second catcher for a team, he most certainly isn’t as experienced or offensively capable as Russell Martin. Although it would make me feel pretty good knowing that the Dodgers have Martin, Ellis and FedEx as their top three catchers. Should Ellis’s knees give him problems, FedEx would be a reliable young backup to Martin.
There are three to four teams reportedly interested in Martin including the Dodgers, Cubs, Pirates and Blue Jays. Martin already had a meeting with the Cubs and their newly appointed manager Joe Maddon. The Dodgers are in the mix, and Andre Friedman is supposedly a Martin enthusiast. The Dodgers definitely have the financial clout to sign Martin, but with such a big payroll already, the new front office regime is surely looking for ways to cut cost but still field a championship caliber team.
The Dodgers should not overpay for Martin, but good catching is extremely valuable. Sadly, the Dodgers are not going to be able to trade for a Salvador Perez any time soon. Unless they want to make it by with the older A.J. (A.J. Pierzynski) who is another free agent option, then they will need to show Martin the money.
Would Russell Martin even want to return to the Dodgers? It didn’t seem like Martin left Los Angeles for New York on the greatest terms after the Dodgers and Martin never came to an agreement for a contract extension. Martin, who injured his hip during a slide at home plate in 2010 would sadly never return to play for the Dodgers. At the time it was the uncertainty of Martin’s torn hip and the fact that he reportedly insisted on a contract worth more than $5 million.
Martin declined their offer, and at the time felt that betrayed that the Dodgers didn’t tender him a contract.
"“I wanted to see how much they really wanted me, because if they did, they would have tendered me a contract,” Martin said. “That was really it. I wanted to see how bad the Dodgers wanted me and if they still believed in me. By doing that, they kind of gave me the answer.”"
His hip injury healed. Has Martin healed from the past? Now with a new ownership and a fresh group of front office executives, I don’t see why Martin wouldn’t consider giving it another try in Los Angeles. Money surely can heal past wounds, no? His fans are still here. His number 55 is still here.
Let’s get the band back together.