TORONTO – Early in October the Toronto Blue Jays gathered in Phoenix for organizational meetings and went through a series of exercises to plot out their off-season.
In one, they ranked all the players expected to be available by position. In another, they looked at the free agent board and debated who to make a priority, with some advocating a focus on the bullpen, others on targeting a starter, a handful pushing for the re-signing of Melky Cabrera.
Russ Martin’s name didn’t come up in that discussion.
Then Alex Anthopoulos asked the front-office staff and scouts on hand if they could have only one player on the list, regardless of position, which one would it be. Martin’s name was raised, but the general manager remembers there being no consensus, and "a great debate on where we spend our money" followed.
It took a few weeks, but eventually that consensus landed solely on the 31-year-old catcher born in Toronto and raised in Montreal. And after a fruitless run at Victor Martinez, two trips to Montreal, countless phone calls, some encouragement from a sweet older lady at a doughnut shop, and finally one this-has-to-get-it-done offer Sunday night, the Blue Jays landed their man with an $82-million, five-year contract, and celebrated his signing Thursday afternoon.
"This was more work than I’ve ever done," Anthopoulos recalled. "A lot of miles in the car, flights, a lot of time on the phone, a lot of days away from home sitting in the office – we haven’t necessarily gone after a ton of free agents, but (this is) definitely the hardest I’ve ever worked in pursuing a free agent.
"At one point I said to the agent (Matt Colleran), ‘Hey, just so you know, I’m signing the player,’ just because it kept going back and forth. Obviously that wasn’t to be arrogant or cocky, I felt we wanted him more than anyone else. We just put so much time into this, he’s the key to our off-season."
And Anthopoulos made sure Martin knew it every step of the way.
"Alex, he’s not afraid to speak, he’s not afraid to take charge at a meeting and he was just very vocal about how much he wanted me to be part of the team," said Martin. "He felt like it was a perfect fit. In his words, he said it doesn’t happen every day, he feels like the stars almost aligned for this to happen. All that is talk, he came forth and offered a great deal, and made my decision – I wouldn’t say easy because there were other places where I feel like I fit as well – but this one made the most sense."
The idea of signing Martin began picking up steam for the Blue Jays in late October, although Martinez, the slugger recently re-signed to a $68-million, four-year deal by the Detroit Tigers, at that point was still high on their wish list.
The Blue Jays felt adding Martinez would compensate for the offence lost by the trade of Adam Lind and the potential departure of Cabrera, and inserting him between Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion would give them perhaps the best middle of the order in baseball. But as they began to travel down that road, they came away with the impression that Martinez was intent on remaining with the Tigers, and they respected the organization’s ability to retain its players.
Martin really started coming into focus Nov. 4, the day free agency opened and when the Blue Jays were in Montreal for a news conference about the club’s two spring training games against the Cincinnati Reds at Olympic Stadium next year. Afterwards Anthopoulos and assistant GM Tony LaCava met with Martin and Colleran and came away very impressed, so much so that at breakfast the next morning, LaCava turned to his boss and said, "This guy really has a lot of substance."
"(LaCava) said, ‘When you look at it, he’s had long-time friends, long-time agent, comes back home, his parents got divorced at a young age and he still has strong relationships with both of them, has been all over the world, been on winning teams – in terms a human being and values and the way he carries himself … he’s really stayed true to himself, he’s someone you bet on,’" recalled Anthopoulos. "And then when you factor in how good a player he is, you felt like you had to have him."
That’s why Anthopoulos decided to schedule another meeting with Martin on the morning of Nov. 9, this time with team president Paul Beeston in tow. They gathered at a coffee shop in Laval, Que., where Martin is staying while his Montreal apartment is being renovated, and gave him the hard sell.
"Of course he did," a grinning Martin replied when asked if his new GM tried to play on his Canadian heartstrings. "He touched on every angle."
Some unexpected help came too via a random exchange with the woman behind the counter, highlighting just how powerful a return home might be.
"She probably used to be an Expos fan," Martin said. "At the end of our meeting she looked at me and started smiling and Paul, was like, ‘Man, I wish I would have planned that.’ It was a fun conversation. … She was like, ‘You need to sign with the Blue Jays.’"
The team was convinced of that too as Anthopoulos flew right from that meeting to Phoenix for the GM meetings. It was there the door firmly closed on Martinez – the Tigers agreed to their deal with him Nov. 12 – and Martin became their sole focus, even as they met with the agent for Pablo Sandoval.
Still, signing him wasn’t going to be a slam dunk.
Colleran didn’t attend the GM meetings, but he was fielding legitimate interest from four teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs believed to be among them, for his client. While some top free agents wait for the market to develop, Martin didn’t really need to do that because he was unique among free agent position players, by far the top talent at his position, and an elite contributor with his bat and glove.
Another consideration was that signing quickly would allow Martin’s new team to spend more time shoring up other areas, an insight into how much he wants to win. So the end-game negotiations started Friday night, went all-day Saturday and continued into Sunday, when the Blue Jays were facing competing offers of $74 million over four years from one team, and $70 million over four years from another club.
Anthopoulos began weighing where the average annual value of the contract was headed and didn’t feel good about offering $76 million over four years. He started to worry that the Blue Jays were going to miss out on Martin.
So at roughly 7 p.m. at night, he called Colleran, and asked whether $82 million over five years got the deal done, no more negotiating. With the fifth year and breaking the $80-million mark providing the tipping point, Colleran replied yes, Anthopoulos called Beeston, and he phoned the team’s ownership, on standby the whole weekend as talks played out, for approval of the contract.
The Blue Jays were given the green light, word leaked out lunchtime Monday and the deal was completed Tuesday morning.
"Where the four-year AAV needed to be we weren’t going to do," said Anthopoulos. "I know it seems odd because it’s guaranteed dollars, but there does come a point in time where five years at X makes a lot more sense than four years at X, and for the player it makes sense because it’s still guaranteed money.
"At some point you have your limit, we set our limit, we absolutely set a limit, and we were able to stay within that."
Martin was relieved to have made a decision. He’d stayed in touch with Colleran – "he’s one of my best friends" – throughout the process, getting updates after each development, and now he was heading home.
"Ultimately I don’t think there’s a better place to win than my home turf, wearing a Blue Jays uniform," said Martin. "That’s the thing anybody Canadian would say and it’s the truth."
Speaking about the largest free-agent contract in club history, Anthopoulos said of Martin, "It’s very rare you have a player that will check off every box. … I’ve never been as comfortable with a signing as I’ve been with this one, just because of everything he brings."
Yet the roster work is just starting for the Blue Jays, who still have many holes to fill. Having made Martin the nearly sole focus of their off-season the past few weeks, the front office planned to regroup Friday morning to begin work on the rest of their roster.