TORONTO – Nearly three weeks ago when Adam Lind was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, a key word in assessing the Toronto Blue Jays’ motivations was flexibility.
Keep that word in mind again as you digest word of the $82-million, five-year deal they settled on with free agent catcher Russ Martin on Monday, a bold move that adds a whole lot more intrigue to the weeks leading up to the winter meetings in San Diego.
There are a lot of layers at play here in the second-largest contract in franchise history, and just like swapping Lind for swingman Marco Estrada, to judge all this properly you’ll need some patience and time to think macro rather than micro.
On the surface, adding the Canadian is clearly an impact move even though it seems like a redundancy with the incumbent Dioner Navarro under contract through 2015 at $5 million and first-round draft pick Max Pentecost expected to rise through the ranks quickly.
But Martin, who’ll turn 32 at spring training Feb. 15, gives the Blue Jays someone who profiles similarly to free agent Melky Cabrera offensively while delivering elite defence and pitch framing behind the plate. According to Baseball Prospectus, Martin ranked third in the majors in stealing strikes at 154.8, a massive swing for the club’s pitchers when you consider that Dioner Navarro ranked 99th at minus-109.7 (Josh Thole, primarily catching R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball, was 65th at minus-7.5).
Even if only a handful of strikes in pivotal situations result from that 265-pitch gain, it still could be enough to alter a few games.
Another important ingredient is that Martin’s leadership immediately changes the team’s heartbeat, and rearranging the clubhouse dynamics is something that’s clearly on general manager Alex Anthopoulos’s agenda this off-season.
Martin has been in the playoffs in seven of his nine big-league seasons, and while he’s played on good teams, he’s also been a driving force on many of them, with the chance to impact the pitchers and fielders around him every game.
The dude expects to win, and plays a position where he can really make a difference.
"When you have a strong defensive catcher it makes your 12 pitchers better, there’s no question about that," Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said last at the winter meetings. "We’ve certainly experienced that over the last two years with Russ."
That’s of significant value to the Blue Jays, just like it was in the acquisition of second base prospect Devon Travis last week, who Anthopoulos tellingly described as "a baseball player," vernacular for a determined gamer who does what it takes to win.
So, at least on the front end of this deal, there’s a lot to like, even if Martin’s age 35 and 36 seasons at the back end of the contract should be worrisome for a catcher already with 9,580.2 big-league innings on the odometer.
At the same time, Martin’s signing opens the door for so much more for the Blue Jays this off-season, and that’s where the flexibility comes in.
Navarro may end up being the club’s DH and occasional catcher, or he could be traded (perhaps to the Chicago Cubs, who were believed to be in hot pursuit of Martin, for infielder Luis Valbuena?). He could be packaged attractively with J.A. Happ, who can be moved by virtue of Estrada’s presence, creating nearly $12 million of salary space.
The bottom line is that there are more options now, especially with the Blue Jays at roughly $117 million for 11 players including Ricky Romero for 2015. Their eight arbitration eligible players could add about $19 million to that total, although a few could be non-tendered to clear some salary.
Put all together, the Blue Jays could still re-sign Cabrera if the contract he’s seeking isn’t out there, or they could make a real run at landing left-hander Andrew Miller, a potential closer who might need $35-$40 million over five years to sign.
Really, this off-season is still getting started.
The interesting thing is how radical a departure all this is for Anthopoulos, who’s entering a make-or-break season.
His previous spending high in free agency was the $16-million, two-year deal he gave to Cabrera two seasons ago, and the only bigger contract ever signed by the Blue Jays was the $126-million, seven-year extension handed to Vernon Wells after the 2006 campaign. That one didn’t work out so hot, as you may recall.
The Blue Jays haven’t spent this lavishly in free agency since landing A.J. Burnett for $55 million over five years in December 2005, the same winter they also handed $47 million for five years to B.J. Ryan.
There’s reason to believe this contract will work out better, but even if it doesn’t, it’s refreshing to see the Blue Jays use their financial clout for a change. And what a great storyline – Canadian kid done good comes home to help his hometown team end its 20-year playoff drought – the move potentially sets up.
But before jumping to conclusions and allowing the imagination run wild, this equation is still emerging for the Blue Jays, who are bringing in different types of addends for their augend in pursuit of a sum that’s eluded them for too long.
The biggest Blue Jays contracts
Vernon Wells ($126 million, seven years)
Russ Martin ($82 million, five years)
Alex Rios ($69.835 million, seven years)
Carlos Delgado ($68 million, four years)
Jose Bautista ($65 million, five years)