PHILADELPHIA – When a 35-year-old catcher makes his first career start at shortstop, a series of questions follows.
“I think he can do it. I want to see him do it,” manager John Gibbons said. “Really, we don’t have a true shortstop on the team right now. Russell’s got good range, he’s got a good arm. He’s got everything. He’s got good hands.”
The Blue Jays have tested Martin’s range over the years, using him on the infield in each of his four seasons in Toronto. He has already started at third base three times this season, showing off his arm strength from the left side of the infield.
“Haven’t you been watching him play the last couple years at third base?” Gibbons asked. “He’s been perfecto. I don’t expect anything any different.”
That said, Martin will need more range at shortstop, the most demanding position on the infield. He started his professional career as an infielder, nearly played short for Canada at the 2013 World Baseball Classic, and has expressed a willingness to shift into a super-utility role in the future, so he’s no novice on the infield.
Still, his knees endure a catcher’s workload, one reason why an evaluator with another team predicted that Martin would have below-average range even if his arm plays on the left side of the infield.
“Well we don’t have a whole lot of range out there anyways,” countered Gibbons, “So I think he’ll be just fine.”
That in itself tells you something about the Blue Jays’ current predicament: they don’t have a real answer at shortstop right now with both Troy Tulowitzki and Aledmys Diaz rehabbing injuries. Diaz should start playing rehab games this week after participating in drills at extended spring training in recent days, while Tulowitzki has been cleared to run under his own power.
Earlier in the year, Richard Urena, Gift Ngoepe and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. saw time at shortstop with mixed results. Martin might not have their range, but at least he has a long track record of hitting big-league pitching.
On the current roster, the Blue Jays have Gio Urshela, who has a career OPS of .583 and limited experience at the position, plus Yangervis Solarte. Though Solarte started 24 games at short for the 2017 Padres, the Blue Jays clearly prefer him elsewhere, as evidenced by the fact that he has played the position just once this season. Given those options, the Blue Jays turned to their catcher.
“Trust me, if I didn’t think he could do it and do it well, he wouldn’t be out there,” Gibbons said.
Turns out we’re getting a look at Russell Martin, super-utility player a little sooner than expected.