When the Blue Jays signed Russell Martin to a five-year deal worth $82 million on Monday, they gave themselves a chance to win the American League East—but also devoted valuable funds to a position that wasn't necessarily at the top of their list of needs.
The signing is paradoxical for the Blue Jays. In a sense, they need Martin to win the AL East, because of his immeasurably positive impact on the pitching staff, and also because Dioner Navarro, the third-worst pitcher framer among all catchers last season and a .255/.313/.375 career hitter, presents an alternative that likely isn't good enough to get the job done.
But at the same time, by dropping more than $16 million annually on an aging, average-hitting catcher, the Jays have potentially precluded themselves from filling their other pressing needs, like second base, outfield and a suspect pitching rotation. Not to mention, they also lose their first-round draft pick in 2015 by signing Martin.
On several levels, however, the deal makes a lot of sense. Martin returns to his native Ontario, Canada, and the hitter-friendly atmosphere of Rogers Centre (and the AL East overall) means the ex-Pirates catcher could realistically produce similar numbers to the .290/.402/.430 slash line he posted last season. Martin's defense also speaks for itself; he was the 10th-best pitch framer in the majors last season by statcorner.com's metrics and threw out a league-leading 37 would-be base stealers. By that measure, the signing essentially kills two birds with one stone by upgrading the catcher position and the starting rotation.
But for how long?
The tiebreaker here is Martin's age. His offensive performance last season, sustainable or not, surely isn't enough to warrant a contract of such proportions when also taking into account Martin's offensive mediocrity from 2009 to 2013, a five-year span during which he didn't hit over .250 once and combined for just 154 extra-base hits in 2,113 at-bats.
That means the Blue Jays paid a significant part of Martin's contract for his ability behind the dish—something that won't last through the entirety of this five-year deal. Martin, 31, has already started 1,074 games in his nine-year career as a catcher, and as veterans like Victor Martinez (828 starts behind the plate) and Joe Mauer (885 starts) transition to first base at even earlier periods in their careers, it's worth questioning how many more years Martin has left in the tank. He turns 32 on February 15, which is rather old (in catcher years) to be starting a five-year deal that's based in large part around Martin's defensive impact.
From the Blue Jays' perspective, this deal's saving grace would be if Martin leads Toronto to a division championship (or even a wild card berth)—and given the postseason's mercurial nature, perhaps a deep playoff run from there.
Now might be the Blue Jays' window of opportunity. The Yankees are stuck with a massive payroll devoted mostly to aging and very costly veterans. The Red Sox are fresh off a 91-loss season and (for now) have a starting rotation that is in shambles. The Rays just lost their brilliant strategist, Joe Maddon, and don't appear to be a postseason threat next season.
Without devoting five years to Martin, the Blue Jays likely never could have completed the deal. But unless we have truly underestimated Martin's longevity, this is a deal that requires immediate results to pay off. In the end, a two- or three-year contract would have made plenty of sense. In 2018, when Martin's defense will have inevitably declined and the Blue Jays will still owe him millions, the second-guessing might really come out in full force.