While the Toronto Blue Jays didn’t grab headlines with big-ticket acquisitions this off-season, it’s clear they improved their depth.
With Gavin Floyd and Jesse Chavez in tow, the rotation is now eight deep. Randy Choate and Pat Venditte give the team some options for as long as Aaron Loup’s elbow continues to bother him. In the outfield, they have a number of fourth-outfielder options with Darrell Ceciliani and Junior Lake in camp.
These are not the type of players that win divisions, but they can prevent the bottom from falling out when things go sideways. Despite the team’s success padding the fringes of its roster, there is one area where the lack of depth is glaring: behind the plate.
In Russell Martin the Blue Jays have one of the best catchers in baseball, but behind him things get shaky. Josh Thole is a pure specialist who would not be a viable everyday option. Next in line is Tony Sanchez, whose main claim to fame is being drafted 21 picks ahead of Mike Trout in 2009.
The departure of Dioner Navarro brings into focus how heavily the Blue Jays are betting on Martin to stay healthy and productive. Based on his ability alone that wouldn't seem to be an issue, but his age is a complicating factor.
Martin just turned 33, and while the age-related decline of catchers has been overstated in the past, the position undoubtedly punishes the body. Last season only one catcher 33-or-older managed over 400 plate appearances (A.J. Pierzynski).
The Blue Jays have reason to believe the Canadian backstop is the exception to the rule. Martin is a good athlete with 97 career stolen bases and a few innings at second base under his belt. He's also a known fitness nut who is open-minded about different kinds of training.
Furthermore, turning 30 has not slowed him down in the slightest. Between his age-30 and age-32 seasons he's amassed 12.5 wins above replacement. That's the ninth-best total for a catcher since 1950, sandwiched between Hall of Famers Roy Campanella and Johnny Bench. To say Martin is aging gracefully behind the plate would be an understatement.
However, there's a difference in believing he's less likely than other catchers his age to break down, and investing in it. When the Blue Jays signed him it was the biggest financial bet on a catcher his age to date.
After a year in which catchers aged 32-36 hit .229/.304/.315 and accumulated only 2.8 WAR between them, the team locked Martin up for those seasons with the largest free-agent contract in franchise history.
The first season was an unmitigated success where he provided a great deal of surplus value at a modest $7 million price tag. However, from here his salary escalates and so too does the Blue Jays' reliance on him. This year he makes $15 million, the fourth-highest salary at his position. From 2016 to 2019 he brings home $75 million, second only to Buster Posey among catchers.
Because of this salary, it will would be impossible to bring in a free agent if Martin falters without tying up far too much payroll at one position. Internally, Max Pentecost is the team's only high-profile catching prospect and health issues have clouded his future.
As it currently stands, Martin is Plan A, B, and C at catcher for the foreseeable future. Due to his contract, and the lack of depth behind him, he's utterly indispensable to the Blue Jays.
Pinning your hopes on a stalwart like Martin is usually a good idea. Banking on a catcher to produce between the ages of 33 and 36 usually isn't.
If the Blue Jays were going to pick anyone to defy the advance of time, they probably landed on the right guy, but it's never comfortable to have the odds stacked against you -- especially when you're all in.