Martin up for challenge of catching knuckleball

As Barry Davis reports, there's still many questions to be answered with the Blue Jays bullpen heading into Spring Training, and right at the forefront is who will be the closer?

DUNEDIN, Fla. — When Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey took to the mound for his bullpen session on the first day of camp Monday, personal catcher Josh Thole was waiting to receive the floater.

Big-ticket free agent Russell Martin was further down the line, handling Daniel Norris. But Toronto manager John Gibbons was quick to note that Martin will get his time with the knuckleball.

Barry Davis on Twitter

Barry Davis on Twitter

Barry Davis on Twitter

Barry Davis on Twitter

"Day 1, it was my decision," Gibbons said of Thole catching Dickey.

"(Martin) will get plenty of it, trust me," he added.

Who will catch Dickey has been a tasty Toronto subplot since the Cy Young Award-winner arrived — along with Thole — in a December 2012 trade with the New York Mets.

Dickey maintains he is Switzerland in the catcher debate. But his loyalty clearly lies with the light-hitting Thole, whom Dickey estimates has been involved in 75 or 80 per cent of his starts since 2010.

The Jays would like Martin, who takes over from Dioner Navarro as the team’s everyday catcher, to handle Dickey so they don’t have to use a roster spot on a specialty catcher. With Navarro having requested a trade so he can play every day, it has made for several question-marks behind the plate.

Martin has limited experience with the knuckleball, catching 13 2/3 innings of Charlie Haeger while with the Dodgers in 2009 and 2010. But he says he’s game.

"It’s a challenge. And I’m always up for new challenges," he told reporters. "I’m excited to see how I can handle it. I have no idea really how I’m going to do."

"There’s a lot of guys here who can help me," he added.

Martin doesn’t have far to look. Dickey’s locker is right next to his.

Gibbons, a former catcher himself, seemed to be trying to convince himself that Martin could handle the unpredictable pitch.

"From here on out he’s going to be catching him because we want to see if he can do it," said Gibbons, before adding: "There’s no doubt that he can do it but it’s not going to be easy."

The team may have to carry Martin, Navarro and Thole if Martin cannot catch Dickey, the manager conceded.

"I can’t say it would be ideal but if that’s the way you’ve got to go, you’ve got to do it," he said.

The Jays carried Navarro, Thole and veteran Erik Kratz for part of last season before dealing Kratz to Kansas City in July.

Martin, who was born in Toronto and grew up in Chelsea, Que., has already given the Jays a more cosmopolitan feel, handling scrums in both English and French.

The Jays have other questions in camp, with second base, centre field and the bullpen topping the list.

"We have the guys to do it," Gibbons insisted while adding there was plenty of opportunity to step forward among the relief corps.

NOTES: Reliever Brett Cecil was absent Monday due to illness … Joe Torre, MLB’s executive vice-president of baseball operations, is due in camp Tuesday to go over the league’s plan to speed up play.

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