Russell Martin used to be an All-Star. He was supposed to become the face of the Dodgers.
Thursday night, he became a free agent — two years before he was eligible to hit the open market.
Unwilling to risk the possibility of paying him around $6 million next year and unable to agree on a deal that would have assured them of avoiding the costly salary arbitration process, the Dodgers declined to tender the 27-year-old Martin a contract on Thursday night, the deadline for clubs to offer deals to players under their control.
With Martin free to sign elsewhere, the Dodgers covered themselves at the catching position by reaching an agreement on a one-year contract with Rod Barajas, according to baseball sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deal is pending a physical.
Left-hander George Sherrill and outfielder Trent Oeltjen also were non-tendered.
The Dodgers tendered contracts to their three other arbitration-eligible players: starting pitcher Chad Billingsley, first baseman James Loney and reliever Hong-Chih Kuo.
"This was, in Russell's case, one of the toughest decisions I've had to make, maybe ever," General Manager Ned Colletti said.
Colletti said he remains interested in re-signing Martin, but acknowledged the two sides were far apart in their negotiations leading up to the 9 p.m. deadline on Thursday night.
Martin, who earned $5.05million last season, proposed a deal that included a $5-million base salary and $1 million in incentives. Colletti said the Dodgers didn't feel comfortable guaranteeing $5 million to a player recovering from a fractured hip and two disappointing seasons.
Colletti wouldn't reveal the details of the Dodgers' final offer to Martin, but baseball rules would have prevented his base salary from being cut by more than 20%, meaning the least they could have guaranteed him was $4.04 million. Colletti said that the Dodgers' proposal could have been worth close to $6 million, including incentives.
Now that Martin is a free agent, the Dodgers can re-sign him at any price at or above the major league minimum of $400,000.
Colletti said that if Martin returns, he might catch only part time. Martin occasionally played third base in 2008.
This wasn't supposed to happen to Martin.
In his first full major league season, Martin hit .293 with 19 home runs and 87 runs batted in. He also stole 21 bases.
He was a two-time All-Star by 25. Former manager Joe Torre said he envisioned Martin becoming a .320 hitter.
But his performance started to decline after the 2008 All-Star break. He hit .260 with three home runs and 24 RBIs the rest of the season.
He lost weight in the offseason, but didn't regain his power in 2009.
He gained weight the next winter, but 2010 was more of the same. Then, he got hurt, breaking his hip in August.
Martin's agent, Matt Colleran, said doctors expect his client to be ready for the start of spring training.