What Blue Jays can expect of Russell Martin’s final year

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Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin takes a break between drills. (Frank Gunn/CP)

You like to plant land-mines every now and then in the middle of a lengthy interview. Do the slow windup … a little bob and weave … a delicate verbal dance and –

So, Russell Martin. Do you still like this team?

“I do,” Martin answered without a breath’s hesitation; so matter-of-fact there was no time for it to be dishonest.

“Right now we aren’t playing for anything. I mean, we are, but it’s not necessarily playing the team game to help you get to the post-season, you know? Which is different. When you’re in that situation it’s really all just about winning. Now you have to self-motivate. It’s still all about the team, but most of the young guys in here are all about showing what they can do – which is not a bad thing. But I prefer the type of baseball where that goes out the window. I prefer it when it’s ‘Let’s just win today.’ That’s fun baseball. That’s exciting.”

For the first time since breaking into the Major Leagues in 2006, Martin won’t be competing in the post-season two years in a row. In fact, Martin has missed the playoffs on just four occasions. But this has been different. He’s 35 years old, has hit a career-low .194 (he was at .200 or above a total of six days) and seen some uncomfortable trends emerge – things such as a career-low line-drive percentage and a high in soft contact percentage – and was told by his manager, John Gibbons, to essentially take the month off while rookies Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire carry the workload. Since Sept. 3, Martin has one more child born than games played. Daughter Eva arrived on Sept. 11.

So, Martin can often be seen playing Fortnite or FIFA ‘19 at his locker. Friday, he put on a sweat top and went out to shag balls in the outfield during batting practice, squeezing in a round in the cage. He does not, he admits, do boredom all that well. Yet he was noticeable as the first guy out of the dugout Thursday night when Justin Smoak clubbed a walk-off home run to beat the Tampa Bay Rays, capping a furious, seven-run, ninth-inning rally.

It must have been a reminder of what used to be a regular occurrence in these parts: the mob scene at home plate, the Gatorade showers, the post-game interviews. Before Jose Bautista flipped his bat, the loudest ovation at the Rogers Centre might have been for that dagger to the heart homer that Martin hit against the New York Yankees on Sept. 23, 2015, that put the Blue Jays on their way to a 4-0 win. It was Martin who signed his five-year, free-agent deal six days before then-general manager Alex Anthopoulos made his franchise-defining trade for Josh Donaldson; Martin who was acquired to be the beating heart on the field; a very public statement that Anthopoulos was back on the horse and attempting a do-over after the flop that was the winter of 2012.

“I love winning,” Martin said Saturday. “I don’t care if I’m involved in the game or not. That was exciting. I mean, you don’t see that every day.

“That’s me,” he said, shrugging. “I show emotion when I’m happy and when I’m pissed off about something? I wear that on my sleeve, too.”

Say this for Martin: where Troy Tulowitzki seems set to rage against the dying of the light as the next two years and $34 million of his contract play out – he has said he plans on leaving the game the way he entered it: as a shortstop – Martin has resolved to make the last year and final $20 million of his contract as painless as possible for all concerned. He willingly moved to third base this season as a means of staying in the lineup while Jansen was given his debut and Josh Donaldson was sidelined with injury. Truthfully? He’s the best defensive third baseman the Blue Jays have employed this season, and as general manager Ross Atkins has noted it’s easy to see why when you watch Martin take infield during BP. There is a natural rhythm that comes with being an infielder. He has it.

“At that point, our team was grinding,” Martin said of the 21 games he played at third and three at shortstop. “We were just short on numbers. The best scenario for the team at that point was to call up Danny and give him a shot and keep me in the lineup. I didn’t mind it at all. I just love the game of baseball wherever you put me on field.

“I still feel like I am the best defensive third baseman on the team,” Martin said, chuckling. “A lot of it is that’s a natural position for me. It’s what I played as a kid. I had to learn how to catch. That was the tough part. People say: ‘Oh, you’re a catcher.’ And I say: ‘No, I’m actually an infielder who puts on gear.’ A lot of the stuff I do behind the plate I did because I was an infielder. I pick the ball a lot. The quick feet and hands come from being an infielder, the double play and all that. Learning to be a catcher was the toughest thing I’ve done. Being an infielder? What’s catching a ground ball?”

Martin is a 0.5 WAR player this season who is paid as a 2.5 WAR player, which means if anybody does want to trade for him the Blue Jays would likely need to kick in, say, $14 million to get the deal done over the winter, or accept another difficult contract in return. For example, industry sources say that the Atlanta Braves had some interest in Martin last winter when they were looking to move Matt Kemp.

Failing that, the Blue Jays could decide to keep Martin around as a utility player and burn money off his deal until they need to pick up only half to get somebody to bite, although that, too, has become complicated since Aledmys Diaz has shown he deserves to be the place-holder third baseman until Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., clears the service time hurdle next spring. As it is, the Blue Jays could be looking at a backlog with Guerrero, Jr., Diaz, Lourdes Gurriel, Jr., and Devon Travis around. Oh yeah … what if Tulowitzki can play?

Martin realizes he hasn’t helped his cause this season, although he still believes plate patience is an asset that can play.

“Offensively, it was kind of one of those frustrating years where I don’t feel like the numbers reflect how I swung the bat,” he said. “I feel like I swung the bat decently. But I just don’t have much to show for it. Not much to show for it from a production standpoint.

“What gets me is that I’ve struggled before, but normally I’ve found a way to claw myself out of it. This year was one of those things where nothing went my way. Smoke a ball; hits a guy on the shin at 104 miles per hour … ends up being an error. Then you start searching for hits a little bit instead of letting the game come to you.

“Look: there’s no excuses. I should have played better. But if my body felt like crap I’d probably tell you I’m wearing down. Am I as explosive as I once was? Probably not. But I definitely feel I can play at a higher level than what I’ve shown this year. I’m just going to have to go back down to the basics and try to get in unbelievable shape; to try and, I don’t know, fool the aging process. You can counter that by talking care of yourself; by eating clean … kind of like Jose (Bautista). To this day I feel like even though he slowed down, he took care of himself as well as he possibly can.”

Martin wonders if maybe being a new father will help this winter. He’s an off-season traveller, but the plan is to stay home, take care of his daughter, and enjoy a state of the art gym he’s built in the basement of his house.

“I feel like I could have been a little more disciplined this off-season,” Martin said. “In this game, you’ve always got to find an edge and I’ve always done it by working harder than everybody else. I just feel like I could have done more last winter. That’s the honest truth. And I felt that way for a while this season, to the point where it plays with your confidence.

“I can’t have that. That speckle of doubt? It’s enough is enough to put you in a bad spot mentally and how you guard against that is to over-prepare.”

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The Blue Jays will wind down their home schedule this week with three games against the Houston Astros after finishing off a four-game set with the Tampa Bay Rays Sunday. The Rays are the best-case scenario for the 2019 Blue Jays: an organization chock-a-block with starry minor leaguers who have parlayed shrewd trading into the makings of a sustainable, home-grown competitor. They are a year ahead of the Blue Jays; a club whose best minor leaguers – whose own versions of Vlady, Jr., and Bo Bichette – are already in the Majors. Could the Rays be providing a template? Martin hopes so.

“If we’re not afraid to use the young talent that is in the organization, I definitely think we can surprise some people,” he said. “But we’re going to need pitching and defence and play a different type of baseball. We don’t have Edwin … Josh … Jose in his good years. Now that we’re younger, I think we can be a little more dynamic offensively. We need to be a first to third team, where you can turn extra bases into wins. I think it’s doable.”

Like the rest of his teammates, Martin is well aware that manager John Gibbons could be entering the final days of his tenure. They’ve had a terrific relationship, a former catcher and first-round pick whose Major League career never took flight after a home-plate collision in spring training and a 17th-round pick from Canada; a manager who instituted a strict rest program for one of the most used catchers in this decade.

“I like Gibby,” Martin said. “He’s a straight shooter. If he’s got something for you, he’s going to let you know and he’s really easy to play for. All he asks is you go out and play hard, and that’s it.”

So, now another tough question: put yourself in management’s shoes and if you were looking for a replacement, what would you be looking for? Martin, after all, has played for managers such as Jim Tracy, Grady Little, Joe Torre, Joe Girardi, Clint Hurdle and Gibbons. His time with Hurdle was with the Pittsburgh Pirates, a smallish-budget operation that blended together its own youth with shrewd additions and outside-the-box, analytical thinking.

“I wish I could answer that,” Martin said – before doing just that. “You just need a good baseball guy. Somebody who understands the game well. But if you were to ask me before this year how would Alex Cora do in Boston I’d say ‘I don’t know?’ If you asked me ‘How will Aaron Boone do in New York?’ I’d say ‘I don’t know.’ I kind of felt like Aaron was going to be a good match because I know him a little bit and he’s such a good energy guy, with a little bit of fight in him, too. He’s one of those guys you don’t mind being around: funny, smart, witty.

“A younger team can relate to him, because he has a good feeling for the younger generation.

“Clint was more vocal than Gibby. He is a very good public speaker. Very organized. You had meetings every series, but you’d also talk about the last series: what we did well as well as what we could have done better.

“There was more structure with Clint than I was used to, but I understood why it worked because it was a younger team and kept everybody in line. Gibby was good at letting veteran guys take care of business. But, man, I look around here now and there’s not a lot of veterans. So, you know, a little bit more structure might be a good thing.”

Is there any way Martin can be this teams catcher again next year? He shrugged. “I’d like it to be a competition and force them to make a decision,” he said, counting down the days until he can return home to full-time fatherhood while trying to find an edge he can no longer take for granted.

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