Blue Jays: Evaluating the Russell Martin deal so far

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 19: Russell Martin
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 19: Russell Martin /

Russell Martin signed a five year deal with the Jays for 82 million dollars, three years ago yesterday. How has it worked out for them so far?

For years the Blue Jays were in search of their next franchise catcher. I thought they had the problem solved when J.P. Arencibia came to town and blasted home runs as a rookie, but alas that wasn’t the long term solution it appeared to be.

It wasn’t until the team splurged in free agency and brought in Russell Martin that they had a true star behind the plate, and the search was finally over. Then GM Alex Anthopoulos handed Martin a five year deal for 82 million dollars on November 18, 2014, and at the time the majority of us rejoiced. It was a bit of an overpay for the then 31 year old catcher, but that was a common thing to get a free agent to come north of the border, at least in my mind.

After a difficult and injury filled 2017 season, there is a section of the fan base that has started to mumble about whether Martin still brings value to the club, especially now that he’s the most expensive he’s ever been. He’ll also be 35 when Opening Day rolls around next season, and it’s generally understood that his load will need lightening in order to maximize his production. After two solid seasons to start the contract, Martin only played in 91 games in 2017, and slashed just .221/.343/.388 with 13 home runs and 35 RBI. After playing in 129 and 137 games respectively the first two seasons, it was a disappointment to be sure.

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Still, Martin managed to earn 1.5 WAR in his 91 games, and provided value when he was on the field. As most of us remember, he was also utilized at third base when John Gibbons wanted to keep his bat in the lineup, but needed to give his legs a day off from the rigours of catching. I wasn’t personally a fan of that usage, but I’ll submit that it brought some extra value to the lineup, even if it was almost solely in the form of the leadership of the act.

Even if the 2017 season didn’t go exactly as planned, you have to like what Martin has brought to the Blue Jays throughout his time in Toronto. The young staff has had an on-field mentor, and we’ve watched youthful arms like Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, and more flourish under his watch. He’s brought a defensive and run-control element the Jay haven’t had in years, and he’s contributed quite a bit with the bat at the same time. In fact, this tweet in particular surprised me.

There are some great catchers in today’s MLB, so to see his name at the top of the list for WAR is impressive. The wRC+ stat is a newer one that “tries to quantify a player’s total offensive value, and measure it by runs”. As I said, Martin’s contribution has been with the bat too, and even if Gibbons has relied on him too much at times, he’s still brought a lot of thump for a catcher.

While I’ll admit I’m nervous about what he may be able to provide for the last two years of his contract, I still think it was a tremendous signing, and that Martin will continue to contribute on the diamond, and in the clubhouse. It’s also the cost of bringing in a veteran player on the back half of his career, when he’s established and his most expensive.

So while he might not ever be the player we saw in 2015 again, Blue Jays fans need to give Martin a break and realize how much value he’s brought to the team. For 42 million over the first three years of his deal, they’ve had the most valuable catcher in the AL over that time (according to fangraphs WAR anyway), and that’s why they’ll potentially overpay for the last two.

Next: Do last year's free agent targets make sense now?

Fortunately, they’re very likely to still get some value next season and in 2019 as well, so cheer up Blue Jays fans, it could be a lot worse.