TORONTO – In a way, it’s a simple trade. A contending team in need of catching sends two relatively unheralded prospects to a rebuilding team for a player nearing his 36th birthday.
Of course, there’s far more to this deal considering all that Russell Martin accomplished in Toronto and what his departure says about the Blue Jays’ path ahead.
Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that the Blue Jays make consecutive ALCS appearances if they don’t sign the Canadian catcher. No, he’s not worth his $20 million salary anymore, and the Blue Jays publicly acknowledged as much by sending $16.4 million with Martin to the Dodgers in exchange for prospects Ronny Brito and Andrew Sopko.
But that five-year, $82 million deal was still worth it considering Martin’s contributions at and behind the plate. Over the course of four seasons, Martin averaged 16 home runs with a .336 on-base percentage and 1.9 wins above replacement. While tougher to quantify, his clubhouse presence and expectation of success helped Toronto return to the playoffs if you ask people around the 2015 Blue Jays.
In that context, it’s hard not to reflect on what Martin meant to Toronto, but at a time that the Blue Jays are attempting to build a new contending core, he was no longer a fit. Martin didn’t play after September 3 last year, so long before the World Series began, the Blue Jays knew a trade was a strong possibility.
After months of discussions, that deal came together on Friday. Martin will now return to Los Angeles and play for the team that selected him in the second round of the 2002 draft. In Toronto, a new set of questions emerges for the Blue Jays as they forge ahead without their longtime catcher.
Remaining on the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster are backstops Danny Jansen, Luke Maile and Reese McGuire. In a conference call with reporters Friday, GM Ross Atkins suggested that Maile’s the favourite to break camp as the backup, while Jansen and McGuire will likely compete for the starting job.
While it’s theoretically possible that the Blue Jays could carry Jansen and McGuire, Atkins would prefer to see both prospects play. That means the runner-up would likely head to triple-A to continue developing.
“Having reps is vital and that’s what works against them slightly from potentially them both breaking on the major-league team,” Atkins said.
The Blue Jays aren’t about to hand Jansen the job despite his status as a top-100 prospect, but he does appear to have an edge over McGuire given his offensive profile and what Atkins described as encouraging leadership traits.
“Danny’s probably one step ahead (of McGuire) in that category today,” Atkins said. “Our hope is that at some point Reese passes him and Danny passes him again. They’re extremely competitive and extremely driven.”
As for Martin, he’ll attempt to add a World Series ring to his resume with a Dodgers team that just lost Yasmani Grandal to free agency. That makes Martin a helpful complement to Austin Barnes, and it’s also worth noting that his ability to play the infield could come in handy on a team that’s clearly willing to move players from position to position.
Neither prospect going from Los Angeles to Toronto ranks among the game’s best, so it’s far from an overwhelming return. Realistically, though, the Blue Jays were never getting a top prospect back for Martin. Given that reality, the return seems reasonable if unspectacular.
Atkins called the trade “a very fair deal for both teams” while a scout from a third team described the return as “basically two low-impact lottery tickets.”
In Brito, the Blue Jays get a 19-year-old shortstop whose bat may be his best calling card. The right-handed hitter obtained a $2 million bonus from the Dodgers in 2015 largely because of his glove, but his bat has since progressed and he hit .288/.352/.489 in 53 games at Rookie ball last year, adding 11 home runs in just 53 games.
“He really performed at a high-rate for a 19-year-old shortstop,” Atkins said.
MLB Pipeline ranked Brito 23rd among Dodgers prospects, but according to Baseball America he’s “lethargic in the field sometimes and makes poor baserunning decisions.” In other words, the Blue Jays’ player development staff has plenty of work ahead.
Sopko, meanwhile, is closer to the big-leagues even if his upside doesn’t appear to be as high. The 24-year-old right-hander spent the 2018 season at high A and double-A, posting a 3.52 ERA with 121 strikeouts compared to 27 walks in 117.2 innings. His command and delivery are considered above-average with a fastball that sits in the 89-93 m.p.h. range, but he didn’t rank among the top 30 Dodgers prospects on MLB Pipeline.
Still, his strike-throwing ability and durability appealed to the Blue Jays. “Typically, guys who do those two things end up getting a chance to help a major-league team,” Atkins said.
Even after trading Martin away, the Blue Jays are still engaged with rival teams about potential deals. Pitching remains a priority for the Blue Jays, who are listening on a wide-range of players.
“Our discussions are ongoing and they go well beyond Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman,” Atkins said.
The addition of David Phelps on a one-year, $2.5 million deal gives manager Charlie Montoyo another experienced arm for the bullpen. While the right-hander lost the 2018 season to Tommy John surgery, it’s “extremely realistic” that he could be ready for opening day, according to Atkins.
With Phelps, Matt Shoemaker, Clayton Richard and Trent Thornton now on the roster, the Blue Jays are getting closer to building the pitching depth required to make it through 162 games. And, as ever, there’s more work ahead as the Blue Jays continue reshaping their team in ways big and small.