On the day he finalized his one-year contract with the New York Yankees -- and the day he also learned he will need minor surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee -- two-time All-Star catcher Russell Martin seemed to struggle for an answer when asked about the fact his new deal with the Yankees carries a lower base salary than the best offer he received from his old team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The deal Martin signed with the Yankees guarantees him $4 million, with up to an additional $1.375 million in performance bonuses based on games caught (regardless of starts). That makes the possible total value of the deal $5.375 million -- still $75,000 more than the maximum Martin could have gotten from the Dodgers. Martin spurned an offer from the Dodgers of a $4.2 million base salary with up to $1.1 million in bonuses based on games started at any position, a deal that would have maxed out at $5.3 million.
"I just really wanted to find out, and the only way to find out how much a team wants you is to take a risk," Martin said Thursday on a media conference call. "Obviously, there was a risk there. I took a chance. For me, it's tough not being able to be with the guys I have always played with, but my main goal is just to have a chance to win. If you want a chance to win, I don't think there is any better place to play than in New York with the Yankees."
Matt Colleran, Martin's Chicago-based agent, said there also was one other significant difference between the Dodgers' offer and that of the Yankees -- the Dodgers weren't willing to accommodate his request that the contract contain a standard guaranteed provision.
Without that provision, the Dodgers would have had the right to release Martin before Opening Day and pay only a small percentage of his base salary. The Dodgers' organizational policy is not to include standard guaranteed provisions in one-year contracts for arbitration-eligible players.
If Martin had accepted the Dodgers' offer and been healthy all season, he probably would have maxed out those incentives by starting 140 games because the Dodgers wanted him to play multiple positions, which would have allowed him more chances to start. But Martin rejected the offer, resulting in the Dodgers' decision to non-tender him rather than going through the arbitration process with him.
The Yankees plan to utilize Martin as their primary catcher, meaning he also has a strong chance of maximizing his incentives by appearing in 120 games behind the plate.
The torn meniscus, which was discovered during Martin's physical examination with the Yankees medical staff, will require surgery, but the rehabilitation time should be short and Martin is expected to be fully recovered by the start of spring training. In a strange way, he said, it actually could be a positive because it allows a little more down time for the hip injury that cost him the final two months of the 2010 season.
"It feels great," Martin said. "I haven't felt anything wrong with it for at least a month now. With the knee thing, now it's kind of like [the hip] will get even more rest, so now it will be ready for sure."
The Dodgers' reluctance to go through the arbitration process with Martin stemmed from the fact he made $5.05 million in 2010 as his offensive numbers continued a three-year free fall, and he stood to get a raise to somewhere in the $5.5 million to $6 million range. Although the negotiations ultimately broke down over a difference of $800,000 in guaranteed money -- Martin and Colleran were seeking at least a $5 million guarantee -- Martin seemed to indicate the team's unwillingness to go to arbitration with him was the real sticking point.
"It's hard to explain emotionally how I was feeling," Martin said. "It was just one of those things where I really wanted to find out if the team really wanted me. If they did, they would have tendered me a contract. So that was really it. I wanted to find out if the Dodgers wanted me and if they still believed in me and things of that nature. By [non-tendering him], they kind of gave me the answer I wanted to find out about."
Although Martin had been considered one of the cornerstones of the Dodgers' future since his early minor league days, when he was converted from a third baseman to a catcher and showed an almost-immediate aptitude for the demanding position, his offensive drop-off the past three years -- and especially the past two years -- began to erode his standing in the organization. When he reported to spring training noticeably heavier in 2010, and subsequently suffered a groin injury that was expected to cause him to miss the start of the season but ultimately didn't, club officials clearly weren't happy.
"Last year, I thought I was in shape," Martin said. "I guess I realize now that I wasn't really in such good shape compared to how I am right now. That was my fault. I injured my groin in spring training, and that kind of slowed my spring training down. I got no excuses. All I know is I'm doing everything I can right now to be in the best shape I can be."
Still, the Dodgers were willing to offer him a $4.2 million base for 2011 -- and, according to one source who spoke on the condition of anonymity, slightly more than that if Martin and Colleran had been more willing to budge on their side -- even after Martin hit a career-low .248 with five homers and 26 RBI in 2010.
But Martin, presumably knowing full well that the Dodgers would non-tender him if he rejected their offer, chose to take his chances on the open market.
"I wasn't necessarily surprised [by the non-tender]," Martin said. "I always knew there was a possibility, and it was definitely probably a tough call for them on the business side. They had a guy who hadn't been doing that good the last couple of years, and he was going to get a raise again. So it was a tough call for them, and I understand that."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.