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Dodgers need shrinking Russell Martin to step it back up

February 10, 2010 | 12:48 pm
Russell What do you make of Russell Martin?

Once so marvelously promising and now … what?

Martin looked like he’d be a rock in the Dodgers lineup for years to come when he put together that exciting second season (.293, 19 home runs, 87 RBI, 21 stolen bases) in 2007.

He was an All-Star, won a Silver Slugger award and a Gold Glove. He was only 24.

His production began to slip the following season, both at the plate and behind it. He vowed last spring he was prepared to rebound, but instead continued his mysterious decline.

His batting average fell to .250, his home runs and RBI dropped to seven and 53 -- all career lows. His slugging percentage, at .469 in ’07, plummeted all the way to .329.

No one can seem to explain it, not Martin, not the club, not anyone. In this age, a power falloff inevitably leads to speculation about steroids. Martin has flatly denied he’s taken PEDs and noted drug testing was already in effect when he was called up in 2006.

But Martin’s rebound this season is a key to the team success. The Dodgers will continue to show patience for someone still so young -- he turns only 27 on Monday -- and talented, while scrambling for answers.

Manager Joe Torre talks about giving him more time off to avoid his annual late-season fade (he hit .207 last September/October and was 1 for 11 in the postseason) but Martin still logged over 500 at-bats last season.

If Martin’s decline continues, the team’s options are limited. Martin’s backup is Brad Ausmus, who played well in spot duty last year but will be 41 in April.

The prospect in waiting is A.J. Ellis, a contact hitter who has looked excellent behind the plate in the minors.

But Ellis has spent seven seasons in the minors and is actually two years older than Martin. Still, Ellis figures to get a strong look in spring just so the team can get a better feel of where he’s at.

What the Dodgers really need is for Martin to return to form. It figures to be one of the most interesting team story lines in the spring and early into the season.

-- Steve Dilbeck

Photo: Russell Martin. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times