On January 11, the Dodgers acquired catcher Russell Martin from the Toronto Blue Jays. After eight years, the 36-year-old would return to his former team, the team that drafted him nearly 17 years ago.
Martin was drafted by the Dodgers in the 17th round of the 2002 MLB Draft. At the young age of 19, Martin would spend four seasons in the minors before eventually making his major-league debut in 2006.
He quickly established himself as one of the best young backstops in the game, hitting .282 with 10 home runs and 65 RBI. Martin only appeared in 121 games, but it was enough for him to finish top-10 in the N.L. Rookie of the Year voting.
The following year, Martin took the next step, and established himself as one of the best all-around catchers in baseball. He hit .293 and had an OPS of .843, both the highest in the national league. On top of hitting 21 home runs and driving in 87 runs, he also led the N.L. in runs scored (87), hits (158), and walks (67). More impressively, he stole 21 bases to lead the majors.
Martin’s remarkable season earned him his first career All-Star appearance. He also won the Gold Glove Award, as well as a Silver Slugger.
Over the next three seasons, Martin’s production declined. He hit .261, and had an OPS of only .720. His power declined as well, hitting only 25 home runs in 395 games.
A hip injury would sideline Martin for the remaining two months of the 2010 season. In the offseason, Martin signed a contract with the New York Yankees, and it appeared as if his time in Dodger blue had officially come to an end.
Fast forward to 2019, and Martin is once again a Dodger.
After losing Yasmani Grandal to the Brewers, the Dodgers had a need for an extra catcher. With Austin Barnes heading into the season as a question mark, LA needed to add some depth at the position. So, they traded for Martin, and the reunion was in place.
After suffering some lower back soreness early in camp, Martin was held out for nearly two weeks. He finally returned this weekend, and appears ready to go for the 2019 campaign.
“I feel great,” Martin said to me following Monday’s game. “My body feels good. The back issue I had is behind me.”
Though a small sample size, Martin is 3-for-10 with three RBI in spring.
Throughout his entire career, Martin spent majority of his time behind the plate. Dodgers fans remember him as a catcher, though he did play a few games at third during his first tenure. Since then, Martin has played all over the field, including second base, third base, all three outfield spots, and shortstop.
On Monday, I noticed Martin taking grounders at short, and asked him if that was something we can see in the 2019 season.
“I came up as an infielder,” he said. “I played third base a little bit in my career. It’s like riding a bike. I grew up being an infielder and being a position player. Catching is something I really had to learn how to do, that was the tough part.”
Playing the infield is nothing new to Martin. He’s played 51 career games at third base, with 31 of them coming in the last two seasons. He also spent three games playing shortstop last year as well.
“I can play anywhere, I just haven’t pitched yet,” Martin said with a huge grin. “Maybe at some point I’ll be able to do that too. Maybe get an inning here or there. Third base, shortstop, and anywhere in the corner outfield I’ll be comfortable.”
Martin did say though that his two main positions would be third base and catcher.
When Martin made his debut, he was only 23-years-old. Now, he’s 36, and the veteran in the locker room. Though they likely won’t be with the big-league club for a while, two of the Dodgers’ top prospects, Will Smith and Keibert Ruiz, are both catchers.
When Martin first suited up for LA, both Ruiz and Smith were in elementary school. Although Martin has over 1,600 games of big-league experience, he thinks that there’s plenty he can learn from both of them.
“I don’t think that learning is a one-way street,” he said. “I don’t think that just because you’re an older player it means you have all this knowledge that you’re going to share. I think every player is its own entity and has things they do well and things they can work on. I feel like I learn as much from those guys hopefully as much as they learn from me. The things that really helped me with the veteran players I came up with was that if you ever had a question or were unsure about something, they were always there to give you their mindset on certain situations. I don’t think that I have magic words for them, but if they’re unsure of something, I can give them my point of view on a certain situation. That’s the best thing of having a veteran player that you can rely on, being able to bounce ideas off of them.”
With Ruiz only 20, and Smith only 23, they aren’t the only young players that Martin has experience with.
On Sunday, he caught Julio Urías, the 22-year-old left-handed pitcher who has excited Dodgers fans since he was signed at 16. It wasn’t too long ago that Martin was catching another 22-year-old left-hander, Clayton Kershaw. In Martin’s final season with LA, he caught the then 22-year-old Kershaw, who finished 13-10 with an ERA of 2.91.
“They’re both unbelievable talents,” Martin said when asked about catching both at such a young age. “Kershaw was a little bit less polished. As far as all the pitches Urías has, fastball, changeup, curveball, slider, it’s more of an arsenal than Kershaw. He had a changeup he was working on. His curveball was bigger, nastier, it was sharp. With Urías, I feel it’s the combination of the fastball/changeup that makes him really good.”
Martin paused for a second, taking his time, thinking of how to compare one of the best left-handed pitchers of this generation to another left-handed pitcher with the chance to cement his name into greatness as well.
“When it comes to the power of the arm, they both threw probably just as hard. Kershaw’s delivery was a little funky, but more explosive. Urías is a little smoother. The thing about Urías is that he stays in his lanes really well. He doesn’t really miss. He’s super polished. Kershaw’s stuff was just electric. His curveball was the best I had ever seen. They are different, but the similarity I think is their attitudes. Kershaw is a super competitor, and with Urías, you can see he’s a competitor. He doesn’t look like he’s intimidated by anything. There’s a combination of ability, and a mindset that’s necessary to be a really good pitcher at the highest of levels.”
It’s unclear yet what Martin’s role will be for the upcoming season. Barnes has looked great behind the plate, and Martin has already been dealing with a lingering injury problem. Regardless of if he spends time behind the plate, or in the infield, Martin is ready to make an impact, and hopefully help the Dodgers capture their first World Series title in over 30 years.