TORONTO – They won’t say so publicly, but Toronto Blue Jays management has added a regular catcher to their list of off-season needs.
It’s time to move beyond whining about the increasingly limited nature of Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki, and how much money they are owed, and figure out how to square the considerable offensive and defensive needs of this team with the realities of keeping that window of opportunity pried open to meet the demands of a strong market.
That doesn’t mean that Martin won’t be the Blue Jays opening day catcher next season. If healthy, he will. But after a season that has seen six different catchers utilized by the organization while Martin- currently on the 10-day disabled list with an oblique injury – suffers through the worst offensive year of his Major League career, the Blue Jays are in desperate need of a receiver who can play, say, three out of every seven days while giving a representative effort both defensively and offensively.
Prospect Danny Jansen (a 22-year-old right-handed hitter who has risen through four levels this season and met each challenge along the way) would seem to be a rushed option. Max Pentecost, two years older and also a righty hitter, is perhaps more intriguing. What is clear is that the Jarrod Saltalamacchias of the world will no longer cut it at a time when carrying extra relievers means there can be no such thing as Thole-esque deadweight.
Manager John Gibbons is unfailingly loyal. Martin and Tulowitzki are, in the truest sense of the word two of his “guys;” good, sturdy people who have his back and are rewarded in kind. “I don’t think so. Russ is our guy,” Gibbons said this weekend when I asked him whether the team in fact needed an almost-regular to back up Martin.
“But,” he added, “only time will tell.”
I’d take that as a yes.
The Blue Jays have Tulowitzki under contract for a minimum of three more seasons at a guaranteed $54 million – $20 million the next two seasons, $14 million in 2020 – with a $15 million club option or a $4 million buyout for 2021. Martin has two years at $20 million per season remaining on his deal. At some point, president and CEO Mark Shapiro will need to ask ownership a delicate question: is there a way payroll could be increased to absorb the sunk cost of Tulowitzki and still maintain an effective payroll near $160 million (U.S.)?
If the answer is no, then the Blue Jays face the likelihood of improving their below-average defence and offence with a statue at shortstop who doesn’t hit enough to be a legitimate option at any other position even if he agreed to move. They will have to improve around him. Martin is less of an issue. His throwing has deteriorated but he’s still an asset as game-caller and has been a willing team player because he’s enough of an athlete that he can play multiple positions. If we’re generous and agree that one WAR is worth around $7 million – a Fangraphs study argued that the mean worth of a five-WAR player last season was $35 million – then 2017 Martin (1.4 WAR) is worth about $10 million while 2017 Tulowitzki (0.2 WAR) is worth … never mind.
Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins and their lieutenants have a lot of heavy lifting this off-season. Two starting corner outfielders, and a second baseman if Devon Travis comes a cropper. Those are the bare minimum requirements. The ideal scenario behind the plate would be something akin to the Houston Astros (Evan Gattis and Brian McCann) and Cleveland Indians (Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez) or Boston Red Sox (Sandy Leon and Christian Vasquez). Know this: going into Sunday the Blue Jays catchers were last in combined average (.180) and third last in both WAR and defensive rating. Their to-do list this winter is bigger than you think.
A DOSE OF REALITY
And so track and field leaves the world championships in London having blown by all attendance records yet facing an unnerving, post-Bolt future.
Indeed, the sight of Usain Bolt lying on the track after blowing out in the anchor leg of the men’s 4×100-metre event – bumbling event organizers made sprinters wait 40 minutes in a cold room before bringing them out so medal ceremonies and anthems could wrap up – was a dramatic introduction into life without the Jamaican.
Bolt is retiring, Mo Farah is leaving under suspicion created by his coach being linked to a drugs scandal. And a guy tabbed as Bolt’s possible replacement as the face of the sport, South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk, has just said he’s going to cherry pick between the 200 and 400-metres race in the future after finishing second in the 200 metres and first in the 400. Translation? We’ll be seeing less of him in the future.
This is life after Bolt: the reigning 100-metre champion is a drug cheat named Justin Gatlin, now likely the second-most despised American in the world.
It was also a disappointing championships for Canadian athletes. Sprinter Andre De Grasse pulled out with a hamstring injury sustained in training, a virus raced through the Canadian team and a lingering Achilles injury forced defending champion high-jumper Derek Drouin out of the event. In the end, athletics head coach Glenroy Gilbert – named to his role almost on the eve of the event – was left talking up a dozen top-eight finishes and how some of the younger competitors’ performances augured well leading up to the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
Absent any medals, it was the best he could do – and it must have pained him to realize it sounded an awful lot like the bad old days of extremely limited returns at a time when Canadian amateur athletes have become among the elite in their sports.
“I don’t think we are going backwards,” Gilbert told CBC, noting that De Grasse’s presence alone would probably have been worth three medals. But Gilbert did acknowledge the need to put more time and effort into the “next generation” of Canadian athletes and spoke about needing to strengthen communications with “decentralized athletes and their coaches.”
“We need to be performance partners,” he said of the national program. “We need to be at the table.”
So this was a wholly unsatisfactory world championships on several levels. The state of athletics can’t be measured simply by the performance or reputation of one athlete, but for some of us it seems as if all’s right in that world if the guy holding the 100-metres title has done things the right way. The sooner the 100-metre crown is knocked off Gatlin’s head, the better. Next year can’t come soon enough.
QUIBBLES AND BITS
• Among the storylines out of the first weekend of Premier League play: Wayne Rooney featured in a goal for the 300th time in his career when he scored Saturday on his return to Everton (199 goals, 101 assists.) Only the great Alan Shearer has been involved in more (324, including a staggering 260 goals) accumulated in 411 career matches.
• The Boston Red Sox have set up shop atop the American League East Division in no small part due to their relief pitching. After the weekend, the Red Sox’s bullpen was third in the Majors in earned run average at 3.04, just 0.05 behind the Cleveland Indians and 0.02 behind the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Red Sox haven’t had a top-10 bullpen in terms of ERA since 2009 and haven’t led MLB in bullpen ERA in 100 years. In fact, the last time Red Sox’s relievers combined for an ERA below 3.10 was 1967, when they came in at 2.90.
• The Tampa Bay Rays come into town for a four-game series at the Rogers Centre off a 2-7 homestand in which they were shut out five times in a span of eight games for the first time in franchise history, scoring just eight runs in those eight games. Among other teams to suffer a similar outage: the 2012 Los Angeles Dodgers; the 1982 Minnesota Twins (the last AL team to score eight runs or less over any eight-game regular-season span); the 1978 Oakland A’s (the last AL team to be shut out five times in an eight-game run); and the 1955 Baltimore Orioles, who were shut out seven times in a 13-game homestand from June 14 to 26 in their first season in Baltimore.
THE DAYS AHEAD
Monday – Houston Astros at Arizona Diamondbacks: The Astros Collin McHugh (0-1, 5.32) starts against Zack Greinke in what is McHugh’s fifth start since returning from the disabled list. A poor outing and the pressure grows to add another starter. Paging Mr. Marco Estrada.
Tuesday – UEFA Champions League qualifying: Liverpool at TSG Hoffenheim. Reds gaffer Jurgen Klopp has already said wantaway Philipe Coutinho will be left out, ostensibly because of a back issue, with FC Barcelona circling.
Wednesday – Chicago White Sox at Los Angeles Dodgers: The game will stink – Yu Darvish versus the White Sox – but the most important activity will be before it starts. Clayton Kershaw is throwing a two-inning simulated game as part of his rehabilitation from a strained lower back that has kept him sidelined since July 24. The Dodgers have padded their lead in the National League West to a franchise-high during his absence. Nice.
Puckheads are still scattered hither and yon, but I wonder if the increasing tension on the Korean peninsula caused by the nuclear ambitions of the world’s most dangerous political leader – plus those of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un – has any of them sitting around their docks wondering if not being a part of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang isn’t a smart thing, after all. As Yahoo! Sports’ inimitable Jeff Passan points out it wouldn’t surprise to see a number of high-profile athletes decide it’s too risky to pursue the, er, “glow” of an Olympic medal. Some place, Gary Bettman and Bill Daly are smiling.
Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9 a.m. to noon ET and Baseball Central from noon to 1 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan.