Despite the uninspiring conclusion, the Russell Martin era in Toronto was a success

(Canadian Press photo)
(Canadian Press photo)

The Russell Martin era has been over for months in Toronto, but on Friday it came to its official conclusion.

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Martin’s $82 million contract was the largest free-agent deal ever signed by the Blue Jays, so when it ends with the club paying the Los Angeles Dodgers a pretty significant sum to take him off their hands (albeit with a slight return coming back), that doesn’t paint it in the best light. Make no mistake, though, the Martin contract was a clear success.

From a purely statistical perspective, it ended up as a minor shortfall. By Baseball-Reference he produced 7.6 WAR with the Blue Jays, while FanGraphs has him at 8.0. Either way, that’s a little bit steep from a pure dollars-WAR perspective.

That said, Martin provided more than what showed up on the stat sheet. He was known for his ability to work with pitchers, he was universally respected as a clubhouse leader, and he had added marketing value for the club as a prominent Canadian player. If there was one guy who deserved a few bonus points for the unquantifiable, it was Martin.

It’s easy to forgot how that outstanding 2015 Blue Jays team came together. The common narrative being that it was a middling squad buoyed by an epic trade deadline. While the addition of David Price was huge, the team had plenty of talent before that but had underachieved.

The Blue Jays had already set out to compete in 2015 prior to July. Some of what they did was subtle but effective, like bringing in Marco Estrada and Devon Travis for the cheap price of Adam Lind and Anthony Gose. The splashier moves started with Martin.

Signing a 32-year-old catcher to a rich contract was a true statement of intent. In many ways it was ill-advised. The contract was at least a year too long, ensuring the Blue Jays would be paying Martin handsomely after he was effective. The dollars were steep too. It would have been interesting to know what the next best offer the backstop got that offseason was, but it seems likely the Blue Jays went above and beyond to get their man. Bringing Martin aboard was the polar opposite of the sort of thing the current front office — which prioritizes payroll flexibility and risk mitigation — would have done.

The deal, flaws and all, helped give the Blue Jays a strong sense of urgency. Now, the club had three core players — Martin, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion — who were under contract below market value (In Martin’s first year he was paid just $7 million) but at an age where decline was imminent. In that moment, many baseball executives would have seen Bautista and Encarnacion as excellent trade chips who could draw the kind of returns that would put a rebuild in overdrive — especially combined with a farm system that was very well-regarded at the time. However, Alex Anthopoulos refused to give up on the idea of a playoff run led by his veteran sluggers. Signing Martin locked that idea in. Ten days later, the Josh Donaldson trade was made and the team’s competitive window truly opened.

When Martin first inked his contract with the Blue Jays, his age combined with its structure presented a fairly clear narrative. Toronto would have a steal in the first two years of the contract (costing just $22 million) then things would get dicier and dicier from there until he probably wasn’t a starter anymore. Normally, any kind of prediction involving five whole years of baseball goes off the rails somewhere, and that’s precisely what happened.

The Blue Jays knew that the key to the “Russell Martin era” was 2015 and 2016. In both those years he excelled and was an enormous part of their success. From there, it was all gravy. They may have gotten a little less gravy than they bargained for — if we insist on continuing the gravy metaphor — but not by a significant amount.

Friday’s trade itself is a win for everyone concerned. The Dodgers get some much-needed catching depth, and a sprinkling of that “veteran presence” playoff clubs tend to be hungry for. Martin probably gets more playing time than the Blue Jays would have given him and definitely gets a spot on a true contender. Toronto acquires a couple of prospects in Ronny Brito and Andrew Sopko. Brito is even a little bit promising as a 19-year-old shortstop who ranked 23rd among Dodgers prospects, according to MLB Pipeline, and hit .288/.352/.489 in rookie ball last season with 11 home runs. Sopko is a little less exciting as low-90’s throwing command guy who’s 24 and hasn’t pitched above Double-A, but there’s nothing wrong with another depth arm.

Thinking back on Martin’s Blue Jays tenure, it would be easy to see him as a guy who made too much money and saw his play slip over the years — ultimately culminating in him being paid well to play elsewhere. But Martin being a good starter, or being paid commensurate with his value, in 2019 was never part of the plan. He’ll be 36 heading into the year, and the fact he’s still effective enough for other teams to be interested, even at a steep discount, is a testament to how well he’s taken care of his body.

When the Blue Jays signed Martin to a franchise record-breaking contract the idea was really to compete in 2015, 2016 and maybe 2017 with him as a crucial cog. That mission was accomplished.

Martin’s time in Toronto may be judged by some now because it’s come to an end, but the verdict on it was rendered years ago.

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