The calendar has yet to hit December and the top free agent catcher is already off the board. On Monday Russell Martin agreed to a five-year, $82 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. The deal does not come with a no-trade clause, per Toronto’s team policy, and is heavily backloaded. Martin will earn just $7 million in the first year, $15 million in the second, and $20 million in each of the final three seasons of the deal. The deal allows the Jays to pursue other players, such as Jon Lester, who they’ve reportedly shown interest in.
The 31-year old is coming off one of his better offensive seasons in recent memory with a .290/.402/.430 slash line and a 140 wRC+. Martin is among the best defensive backstops in the game and was credited with 12 defensive runs saved in 2014. He excels in pitch-framing as well as throwing out base runners.
Personally I think this is a great signing for the Blue Jays. The contract is about market value but the smaller payments in the first couple years don’t limit the club and by the time the third year kicks in a couple significant contracts will be off the books. The narrative of a Canadian playing in Toronto has been overblown in the past, but Martin was born and raised in York, Ontario — just north of Toronto — but his personality and gritty style of play will quickly turn him into a fan favorite.
Martin is a noted leader in the clubhouse and should help ease some of the tension that’s been around the team in recent years. The backstop strengthens the defensive side of the team and pushes Dionner Navarro to a more regular designated hitter role if he isn’t dealt. Top catching prospect Max Pentecost is likely still a few years away from the majors.
Even though the Seattle Mariners already have a catcher of the now and of the future in Mike Zunino, there was some rumblings last week that the club was checking in on Martin, if for nothing more than due diligence. On Tuesday Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com reported that the Mariners were actually one of the finalists for the Canadian-born catcher.
Checking in on Martin only makes sense. Every team checks in on every free agent, again, that’s the due diligence aspect. But for the M’s to have seriously pursued a high profile catcher does raise an eyebrow given Zunino’s presence and the other needs on the roster. My stance on the Mariners offseason has been that an improvement is an improvement, regardless of position. If the team was able to find similar ground with Martin, there was no reason not to sign him. Not only is he an upgrade over Zunino in the short-term, it also creates a very interesting trade chip in the young catcher.
The Chicago Cubs were flagged as the early favorite for Martin’s services and will have to look elsewhere. Even at a surface glance there’s likely a fit between the two clubs where Zunino could be jettisoned in a package for potentially available shortstop Starlin Castro — that’s my own speculation. Other teams like the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Martin’s former team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, could have interest in the young catcher.
Whether or not the Mariners would be willing to trade Zunino is a debate for another day.
What we can take away from this report is simple: Seattle really is pressing on all fronts to improve offensively. There’s been plenty of chatter surrounding Nelson Cruz and reported interest in Hanley Ramirez and Justin Upton. Matt Kemp’s name has also come up again.
Seattle’s preference is to acquire right-handed hitters and Martin fits that mould. How far they were willing to go in terms of dollars and years is unknown and probably will stay that way. What we do know is that GM Jack Zduriencik and company are trying. And eventually those efforts will yield results.