The case for the Toronto Blue Jays to aggressively address backup catcher

Feb 23, 2015; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin (left) and catcher Dioner Navarro (right) stand by the batting cage during morning work outs at Bobby Mattick Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 23, 2015; Dunedin, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin (left) and catcher Dioner Navarro (right) stand by the batting cage during morning work outs at Bobby Mattick Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports /

For the first time since R.A. Dickey and Josh Thole arrived for the 2013 season, the Toronto Blue Jays are in need of a traditional, no-strings-attached number two catcher.

Toronto’s catching situation has fluctuated in the four years since. The Blue Jays carried three catchers at times and tested Russell Martin with the knuckleball, but with Dickey and Thole on their way out, the job of Martin’s ‘number two’ has become one that needs to be addressed proactively.

Martin will be 34 years old on opening day next April and is entering the final three years of his contract that come with an annual salary of $20 million. The age 34-to-36 seasons can highlight the decline of any player, but the risk becomes especially prominent with a career catcher who’s been crouched behind home plate for 11 seasons.

Only one catcher in baseball currently under contract will earn more than Martin next season — Buster Posey at $21.4 million. Brian McCann will be close behind, earning $17 million, but at age 33 next season he’ll continue away from being a primary catcher thanks to the arrival of Gary Sanchez.

Rest for Russell

For the sixth consecutive season, Russell Martin appeared in over 110 games with 460 or more plate appearances (he’s played in 125+ games in five of those six). This season with the Blue Jays, Martin appeared in more games and made more plate appearances than he has since 2009 (age 26 with the Los Angeles Dodgers).

Martin’s teams tend to be successful, as well, which has added 57 playoff games to his career. By the time 2016’s playoff run rolled around, Martin struggled to a .091 batting average, going 3-for-33 with 14 strikeouts.

These numbers continued Martin’s late-season decline. After playing his best baseball of the season in August, where he pounded nine home runs and drove in 22, Martin hit just .161 from September 1st on and struck out in over one-third of his at-bats.

This late skid left Martin with a strikeout rate of 27.7%, the highest of his career. Martin’s defence remains strong and should experience a slight bounce back in 2017, but 2016 saw him post the lowest FanGraphs defensive value of his career. This limited Martin to a 1.9 WAR, which many teams would love to see from their catcher, but a fresh and healthy Martin remains capable of much more.

His 1.9 WAR placed Martin 5th among American League catchers behind Gary Sanchez, Evan Gattis (55G as catcher), Sandy Leon, and Salvador Perez.

The Cumulative Catcher and Internal Options

Blue Jays
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First, it’s important to consider the Blue Jays’ internal options. A.J. Jimenez no longer owns the prospect shine he once did thanks to several years spent battling injuries, but he maintains potential to be a steady backup. The 26-year-old Puerto-Rican hit .241 in 67 games with the triple-A Buffalo Bisons last season while throwing out 26 and allowing 49 steal attempts (35%).

The young Reese McGuire, an intriguing prospect who came over as part of the Drew Hutchison deal from Pittsburgh, does not yet have a complete enough game for this role. On a team where the starting catcher is in line for 140 starts, McGuire’s elite defensive profile could keep him above water for 20-25 games at the Major League level already. With his bat still behind the curve, however, the value isn’t there yet to spell off Martin as much as he needs.

Options like Jimenez, McGuire (eventually), or a veteran free agent at the league minimum are, relatively speaking, just fine. Backup catchers, league-wide, do not typically perform at a high level or hit .290. For the Blue Jays to maximize their Cumulative Catcher, however, an aggressive push for a talented second-stringer is a sensible play.

If the Blue Jays are open to keeping Martin in the range of 110-120 starts behind the plate, this allows them to offer 40-to-50 games to a free agent catcher (including the possibility of being used as a DH, a role that could also fit Martin from time to time if his off days are increased).

Once teams with a clear need for a number one catcher have come and left the market, Toronto’s situation could be appealing. Names like Jason Castro, Kurt Suzuki, and Nick Hundley exist behind Matt Wieters and Wilson Ramos.

Dioner Navarro will surely earn consideration himself after his second stint in Toronto, and his 2014-15 production with the Blue Jays — a .704 OPS with competent defence — would be a welcome addition to Toronto from whomever they choose. The fan favourite doesn’t necessarily fit with the goal of becoming a faster team on the bases, though. (Counterpoint: Do any catchers achieve that?)

The Key Equation

Given the tall $20 million owed to Martin this upcoming season, it is important to view the Blue Jays catching situation as one cohesive duo instead of a pure “starter” and “backup”. The abilities of Toronto’s number two catcher will have a significant impact on Martin, thus allowing him to better fulfill the money owed to him.

Blue Jays
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In order to justify a more aggressive pursuit than usual when it comes to this position, the Toronto Blue Jays would need to see a return on their more aggressive investment. From a very broad scope, these are two scenarios that must be considered:

Scenario One:  Martin is paired with Jimenez or a “traditional” backup. Between the standard workload for Martin (130 games) and the limited value of the backup, the combined Cumulative Catcher salary of $20.5 million creates a poor return on investment ($15 million worth of value for $20.5 million).

Scenario Two:  Martin is paired with a backup catcher that is above the league average, allowing him to remain fresher over 110-120 games while both catchers see time at DH if matchups and splits allow. The combined Cumulative Catcher salary of, say, $25 million, creates a stronger return on investment ($23 million worth of value for $25 million). Even though the Blue Jays may still not squeeze an ever dollar of value out of this scenario, they’d be closer to doing so and would thus create a more valuable position overall by maximizing Martin.

Complicating Variables

Martin’s relationship with the starting rotation will be a major factor in the Blue Jays management of the catching position next season. J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada both had excellent seasons working with Martin, but do the younger arms of Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman benefit from him more? What about Francisco Liriano, who rekindled his relationship with Martin for a strong finish to 2016.

Addressing the position in this manner is also more of a luxury move than a pure necessity, even considering the potential payoffs. Toronto needs to address their bullpen with multiple pieces, find at least one starting outfielder, and fill a gaping hole in the 1B/DH dynamic. These additions will not come cheap, and placing a high-calibre backup catcher ahead of these financially involves a level of risk that management may not be comfortable with.

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The Last Word

Complementing Russell Martin with a better-than-average counterpart behind the plate is not intended to be a criticism to the Canadian, who remains one of baseball’s best at the position and a truly unique athlete.

The Blue Jays have an opportunity to be proactive, however, and get out ahead of a potential problem as Martin begins earning a $20 million salary at an age when many of his fellow catchers have already begun their decline.