Blue Jays’ Martin willing to play infield in aging years of contract

Toronto Blue Jays' Russell Martin makes a throw to first. (Nathan Denette/CP)

A little bit of third base. Second. Maybe two starts per week behind the plate. Shortstop? Some of that, too, maybe.

Russell Martin was ready to go on the record Thursday: if the Toronto Blue Jays think he needs a move out from behind the plate or at least a different balance in his responsibilities, he’s all ears.

The contract is what it is, folks. It isn’t going away. But that’s not even really the point here. Not in Martin’s mind. A future, short-term contract as a utility guy after 2019? Maybe a late addition to a winning team? I mean, yeah, a guy’s got to do whatever he can in this cold, analytical, post-PED age where 35, 36 or 37 years old plays like, well, 35, 36 or 37 years old.

“Whatever management thinks makes the team better, gives us a better chance to win,” said Martin. “You know, the goal for me on any team I’ve played on is what’s best for the squad. And I’ve always been a fan of the infield.”

Tuesday night at Citi Field, Martin made his Major League debut at shortstop in the eighth inning, taking over for Richard Urena. Martin has appeared in 1,474 games, starting 1,410 behind the plate, 21 at third base, 23 at designated hitter and two in the outfield.

Martin, who was a third baseman when he was chosen in the 17th round of the 2002 Major League draft and played the position for a full season with the Los Angeles Dodgers Rookie League affiliate before he was shifted to catcher in the off-season, has often mused about a move back to the infield. In fact, he missed the World Baseball Classic in 2013 because Canada would not allow him to play shortstop, acquiescing to a request from Martin’s Major League employer, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Martin routinely takes balls at infield positions during batting practice.

“I’ve always been a fan of infielders, and of the infield,” Martin said. “I just love playing baseball. I’d love it at any position.” Asked if he would have felt the same way, oh, four or five years ago when he was a 5 WAR player (as calculated by Fangraphs) and an all-star catcher? He shrugged. “Yeah, probably, to be honest. I’ve always had confidence in my abilities to be an infielder.”

Martin has another year left on the five-year, $82-million free-agent deal he signed four years ago. He will earn $20 million next season and he won’t be the 2.5 WAR player that would give the Blue Jays full value for the contract. Martin’s deal, coupled with the $12 million owed Kendrys Morales in 2019 and the $20 million Troy Tulowitzki gets in the penultimate guaranteed year of his contract, will by a conservative estimate account for a third of the teams payroll in 2019.

So what we are talking about in Martin and Tulowitzki are situations that need to be managed. Whining about the deals doesn’t do anybody any good. The Blue Jays have internal options, at least. Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire could both be in the Majors as catchers next season, and the Blue Jays have prospect depth at shortstop in Bo Bichette and Lourdes Gurriel, Jr.

It’s unlikely that there would be interest in any of the three players this season or, for that matter, in the off-season. Tulowitzki will be paid $14 million in 2020 before being eligible for a $4 million buyout on the $15 million final year of his deal in 2021, so it’s possible that a half-way decent season in 2019, coupled with the Blue Jays willingness to pick up some money, might make him slightly more enticing. Maybe. But until then, the question is: how do the Blue Jays set the stage for the Vlady, Jr., era without letting these contracts get in the way? How do they digest the very real notion that they have $52 million worth of ‘we’ll take whatever we can get?’ at the same time as they have, what is for this organization, a first chance at what might be a home-grown, generational player?

Unlike Tulowitzki, who has vowed to die on the shortstop hill he came in on, Martin is willing to make it work. He might have the best infield arm on the team right now, and who knows whether or not a diminishment in the wear and tear of catching might milk out a little more offence from a bat that will be 36-years-old on Opening Day next year. If nothing else, it should allow one of the best Canadian players of his generation a proper exit.

“As long as he’s here, I have to believe he will be my main guy,” manager John Gibbons said of Martin.

But …

“I have no problem putting him anywhere else,” said Gibbons. “I think he’d be able to handle it. And I know he likes it. You tell him that you want him to play in the infield, and his eyes just light up. He’s a better athlete than most catchers out there. His reactions are good, he has great hands … and he gets the (crap) beat out of him back there.”

So there you go. I kind of apologized to Martin afterward. Told him I didn’t want to create a fuss, etc., etc. ‘Cause I’m like that sometimes with people I really like. “Just want to make sure I wasn’t on the wrong track,” I said. He smiled. “Nah. You’re on the right track.”

Truth is, it might be the only track in a market where these things don’t always end well.

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