The offseason has been so eventful thus far that it’s easy to forget the Toronto Blue Jays made the first big splash when they signed Russell Martin to a five-year, $82 million contract.
Martin will receive $7 million this coming season, $15 million in 2016 and $20 million in each of the final three years of the deal. He turns 32 in February, which may cause some to raise a red flag, but you have to look at the market to give a fair evaluation.
Toronto added a fifth year to land Martin, who was expected to command more than $70 million over four years. As many have pointed out, the Blue Jays signed Martin to roughly the same contract Brian McCann received from the New York Yankees (five-year, $85M) last offseason. Martin hasn’t been as good a hitter as McCann, but he’s a plus-defender and a better leader of a pitching staff.
The Blue Jays had to act quickly and make an offer, excuse the token Godfather reference, which Martin couldn’t refuse. The deep-pocketed Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago Cubs, suddenly spending their cash, were on the lookout for an everyday catcher. Getting the services of Martin over those more storied franchises is a win of sorts for the Blue Jays, who were also able to offer Martin the chance to play just a few miles (or kilometers) from his hometown of East York, Ontario.
Martin, a career .259/.354/.399 hitter, put himself in position to capitalize on his free agency with a huge 2014 campaign in the last of his two seasons as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He had his best all-around offensive season, hitting .290/.402/.430 with 11 home runs and 67 RBIs.
His on-base percentage was easily the best of his nine-year career, surpassing his previous high by 17 points. The 31-year-old has always been patient at the plate, striking out once every 6.33 plate appearances throughout his career.
Grade for Martin: A
While the Dodgers may have offered Martin the best chance to win immediately, he was holding out for the fifth year the Blue Jays dangled. Chicago would have been an intriguing fit as well, especially with Jon Lester signing with the Cubs a few weeks later, but in terms of the location, fit and money, Toronto was an easy decision for him.
The Blue Jays are thrilled to add Martin because they get a mentor for their hitters and pitchers.
Toronto will rely on several young hurlers in 2015 and beyond. Martin is one of baseball’s better pitch framers and his arm will help end rallies before they start. He threw out 37 of the 59 runners that attempted to steal on him last season.
How he works with guys like Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez will go along way towards determining whether or not the Blue Jays get enough value out of this contract.
The average annual value of the contract ($16.4 million) isn’t crippling, but it’s a lot of money to commit to an everyday catcher approaching his mid-30s. Toronto needed and wanted him, but they could have let another team step up with a five-year offer or force Martin to settle for a four-year pact with a higher average annual value.
Alex Anthopoulos is gambling on Martin’s health and ability to remain behind the plate. They would much rather see his offensive skills decline a bit while maintaining his defense/command of the staff, but conventional baseball wisdom suggests that he’ll have an easier time remaining a respective hitter given the rigors of the catching position.
Grade for Blue Jays: C+
Martin could very well be worth every penny, but there is too much risk involved with a 32-year-old coming off his best offensive. Even in today’s offensive climate, having to make Martin a designated hitter for the final two years of this deal would mean trouble for Toronto.
At that point they’ll owe him $20 million per year and have to cross their fingers that Martin can continue to get on base at his current clip while also seeing a spike in his power numbers. That’s not a recipe for extended success.