Martin expects return to form as regular catcher
Until Montero, Romine arrive, Yanks turn over duties to veteran
NEW YORK -- Jorge Posada's days as the Yankees' full-time catcher have passed him, and Jesus Montero's haven't arrived. So Russell Martin is now the new bridge in New York City.
Martin signed a one-year, $4 million contract to become the Yankees' starting catcher on Thursday, becoming the low-risk, high-reward acquisition general manager Brian Cashman was looking for to address an uneasy situation behind the plate. The ultimate reward would be for Martin to feel completely healthy and somehow reacquire the skills that made him one of the best catchers in the National League just two years ago.
Martin doesn't see why that can't happen.
"I'm expecting what I've done in the past, and hopefully even better," the former Dodgers backstop said via conference call. "I'm going to do everything I can to get back to those ways. Because talent just doesn't go away. I know I can hit, you know what I mean? I just want to get back to that consistency."
Martin wasn't just consistent -- he was great for a two-year stretch from 2007-08, when he put up a .286 batting average, .380 on-base percentage and 32 home runs while making two All-Star teams and winning both Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.
But he batted just .250 in 143 games the following year, then had a nightmarish 2010 that began with a Spring Training groin injury, proceeded with a .248 batting average and five homers in 97 games and ended prematurely with a broken right hip.
After being non-tendered by the Dodgers, Martin -- a product of Montreal -- garnered heavy interest from the Blue Jays and Red Sox, but he said the Yankees "were the ones that pushed the hardest, and that's what made my decision a little easier."
"I think we're adding a very, very good player, which I think is going to help our club," said manager Joe Girardi, who was once the everyday catcher while Posada developed. "I'm excited about Russell."
Martin, who can make nearly $1.4 million more in incentives based on appearances behind the plate and won't be a free agent until after the 2012 season, turned down $4.2 million plus similar incentives from the Dodgers because he "wanted to find out how much the team really wanted me."
"I am excited to be closer to home, on the East Coast, have family come and see me play," Martin said. "But, really, the main thing is having the opportunity to win and have a chance to go to the World Series."
Martin can help the Yankees do that, mainly because he gives them extra flexibility -- and that has little to do with the fact that he can help out as a corner infielder if needed.
With Martin in the mix, the Yankees don't have to rely on a 21-year-old Montero or a 22-year-old Austin Romine to develop quicker than expected. The two of them -- along with Francisco Cervelli -- will compete in Spring Training for the backup role, but both will likely be sent to the Minor Leagues for more seasoning.
And if Cashman wants to dangle one of them in hopes of acquiring a much-desired frontline starting pitcher, he now has that freedom, too.
"The assets this organization currently possesses is high-end pitching depth, as well as high-end catching depth," Cashman said. "If we ever choose to shoot those bullets, we're in a better position to do so.
"I'm not saying I want to shoot any of these assets for trade purposes, but sometimes you have to."
After an extensive physical examination on Martin, Cashman said he's "very comfortable with what I've been told" regarding Martin's injury, which is more common with football players and is believed to have a high recovery rate.
The tests revealed that Martin has a small meniscus tear in his right knee and will undergo what Cashman called "minor" surgery on Monday. It's essentially the same surgery Posada and CC Sabathia previously had this offseason, and the expected recovery time is three weeks.
The Yankees will no doubt be careful, but the 27-year-old Martin is expected to be ready by Spring Training, and Martin said his hip issues are "over with."
"It feels great," Martin said. "I haven't felt anything wrong with it for at least a month now. There's absolutely no problem with it. Before I hurt my knee, I was really pushing [the hip] pretty hard in training and stuff, and I never really had any side effects of pain or anything of that nature. I had full range of motion and everything, so I feel pretty comfortable with my hip."
Now he just needs to get comfortable at the plate again.
Martin, who believes he's "getting better every year" defensively, believes the key to that is a return to basics.
After a successful '08 season, Martin went on a very strict diet and intense offseason training regimen that made him more athletic, but also caused him to lose pop in his bat. He said that forced him to do more with his swing to try to compensate and thus led to an inconsistent approach at the plate.
Heading into the 2010 campaign, Martin took the opposite approach. He put on about 25 extra pounds that put him at 231 at the start of Spring Training, but he still struggled.
Now, Martin said he wants to weigh between 215 and 220 pounds. He vowed he'd be in the best shape of his life when camp opens up in February, and he preached a return to what made him successful in the past.
"I think I got almost in my own way," Martin said. "So this year, I made sure to just come back to the roots and what really got me to where I wanted to be those two All-Star seasons and my first year."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Gonzo and 'The Show'. Follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.