- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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The Los Angeles Dodgers declined to officially offer a contract to catcher Russell Martin before Thursday night's deadline for doing so to arbitration-eligible players after the sides failed to reach agreement on a new deal for the two-time All-Star and former Gold Glove winner. As a result, Martin is now officially a free agent and quite possibly has played his final game in a Dodgers uniform.
Although the Dodgers are still free to negotiate with Martin, every other team is now free to do so, as well. Moreover, Martin might not have a position to return to. Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said he is "pretty far down the road" toward signing a free-agent catcher who would handle the bulk of the duties behind the plate. Although Colletti declined to identify that catcher, there were strong indications that it is veteran Rod Barajas, the Los Angeles-area native who finished the 2010 season with the Dodgers after they acquired him from the New York Mets on Aug. 22.
"I think we are on the cusp of getting something done in a different direction," Colletti said. "I wasn't going to go to sleep tonight without a big league catcher here besides [backup] A.J. [Ellis]. We're pretty far down the road with something, and it should come to fruition in a short period of time. This is somebody who, if the season were to start today, would take the lion's share of [playing time], with A.J. in a backup role."
Dan Lozano, Barajas' agent, didn't immediately return a phone call seeking confirmation of an agreement.
The Dodgers also non-tendered left-handed reliever George Sherrill and little-used outfielder Trent Oeltjen. The club did tender offers to its three other arbitration-eligible players: right-hander Chad Billingsley, reliever Hong-Chih Kuo and first baseman James Loney.
Colletti said that even with a primary catcher in the fold, he intends to continue discussions with Matt Colleran, the agent for Martin.
"Matt and I have talked, and Russell and I talked about it a month or so ago when he was in town to get checked out, about being more versatile and playing other positions," Colletti said. "We do think that with his athleticism, if he returns, he can do more than just catch."
Martin originally was drafted as a third baseman, but Colletti also said left field was "something you would have to think about" for Martin. The Dodgers presently don't have a potential every-day left fielder on their roster, but Colletti has said that isn't necessarily an urgent need because the Dodgers could mix and match there with players they already have.
The Dodgers' unwillingness to go through the arbitration process with Martin stemmed mostly from the fact his offensive numbers have fallen off each of the past three seasons. Had the team gone to arbitration with Martin, he would have been all but assured of receiving at least a nominal raise, and possibly a sizeable one, from his $5.05 million salary for 2010.
In his first All-Star season of 2007, when he still was considered a cornerstone of the franchise's future, Martin posted career highs in hitting (.293), doubles (32), home runs (19), RBIs (87) and stolen bases (21). In 2010, Martin hit .248 with 13 doubles, five homers, 26 RBIs and six steals, and that was before he missed the final two months of the season with a hip injury he is still rehabilitating.
Still, the Dodgers' first choice was to bring Martin back if an agreement could be reached on a contract that would have paid him a lower base salary than what he received in 2010. Colletti said that in the final minutes before the 9 p.m. PST deadline, Colleran lowered Martin's asking price to a simple $5 million guarantee, but the Dodgers weren't willing to go that high.
"We were willing to get to the same point with performance bonuses, but not with a guaranteed $5 million," Colletti said.
Sherrill, 33, struggled all season with his mechanics and was never as effective as he had been in the past. He made $4.575 million last season and is now a five-plus arbitration-eligible player, so he probably would have cost the Dodgers close to $5 million in arbitration. Colletti said the Dodgers made no effort to reach an agreement with Sherrill, an All-Star closer for the Baltimore Orioles as recently as 2009 whom the Dodgers acquired at that year's trading deadline but who wound up posting a 6.69 ERA in 65 appearances in 2010.
"The year for George didn't turn out with the same results as his first two months with us, when he was as good as anybody could be," Colletti said. "He would have continued to increase his salary [through arbitration], and we didn't feel comfortable with that."
Billingsley, Kuo and Loney all are four-plus players who are arbitration-eligible for the second time. Billingsley took a giant leap forward in 2010, going 12-11 with a 3.57 ERA and dramatically improving his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 2.5-to-1, all while making $3.85 million. Kuo, who became the team's primary closer for most of the season's final two months, had his best season in the majors -- he posted a 1.20 ERA in a career-high 56 appearances and allowed just 29 hits in 60 innings -- while making $975,000.
While many of Loney's offensive numbers dropped off in 2010 -- he hit a career-worst .267 with 10 homers and 88 RBIs -- he did have a career-high 41 doubles. He made $3.1 million.
Billingsley, Kuo and Loney all will receive sizeable raises through the arbitration process. Teams and players will exchange arbitration figures on Jan. 18, with hearings scheduled for early February. As a general rule, the vast majority of major league players agree to terms on new contracts with their teams without going to arbitration hearings.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.