The Blue Jays are currently caught in a tough spot. They continue to boast a core group of players with several years of control remaining: Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, Devon Travis, Joe Biagini, and Kevin Pillar. They also have money tied up long term to some aging players to help complement the young guys, including Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Kendrys Morales, and J.A. Happ.
While this roster structure of young players and veterans is valuable for contenders, it makes for some tough decisions when the team isn’t playing at that level. Depending on who you talk to, Toronto’s struggles this season have been the result of either players underperforming based on their true talent levels, or an aging roster declining to the point that their current on-field performance is what can be expected moving forward. The Blue Jays have decisions to make regarding their future based on what they believe is the reason, and it is not unthinkable that some of the older players on the roster will not be back next season as part of a rebuilding or retooling phase.
Russell Martin’s play in 2017 could lead to a crossroads for the franchise. After a two-week bout with nerve troubles in his neck and shoulder, Martin has returned from the disabled list hitting .237/.361/.396, bringing his true average up to .257 for the season. To this point, Martin has bounced back from a down year in 2016, and his 1.5 WARP is currently best among Blue Jays position players not named Justin Smoak. He has played well enough that he could be considered a trade candidate, a possibility that should have the Blue Jays contemplating what direction they see this team going.
Part of the reason for Martin’s resurgence can probably be attributed to him just being healthy again. He’s battled with injuries through much of his tenure with the Blue Jays, and the backup catcher situation (or lack thereof) has forced Martin to play more than the optimal amount for a 34 year old catcher. After recovering from a couple of nagging injuries, we may finally be seeing Martin play at near full health.
However, Martin’s rejuvenation might also have to do with a change in approach. Martin is currently walking at a rate of 15.6% percent. If he finishes the season at that mark it would be a career high for him and well above his career average of 11.7%. This improved plate discipline appears in Martin’s underlying swing numbers as well. His chase percentage is down to 19% percent, an improvement from last season’s mark of 21.49%. Meanwhile, he is also swinging at more pitches inside the strike zone, up 3.7% from last year. Martin seems to be hitting with a more focused approach this season, something that he needs to be able to do to sustain his offensive production as he ages.
Martin’s improved approach at the plate has appeared in his expected production as well. His xWOBA of .349 this season has improved over his .325 mark in 2016, even with a similar batted ball profile. In 2017, the average ball off of Martin’s bat is leaving at a speed of 89.5 mph at a launch angle of 7.9°, in comparison to last season at 89.1 mph and 9.3°.
*An interesting tidbit that has come from Martin’s new approach at the plate has been its occurrence in high leverage situations. In a small sample of 25 high leverage plate appearances, Martin has worked a walk 10 times. He has only two singles in these same situations, but still sports a wild slash line of .133/.480/.133.*
If Martin can sustain this improved offensive performance for the rest of the season, he has the potential to make for an interesting trade piece. After 2017, Martin has 2 years/$40 million left on his contract, which may be a steep price to pay for some teams. However, the catching market this offseason is thin once again, headlined by Alex Avila, a mightily struggling Johnathan Lucroy, Kurt Suzuki, and Welington Castillo. The Jays would very likely have to eat some money on a deal, but in return could receive some quality prospects to help along a potential rebuild.
Tantalizing as it is, trading Martin is predicated on what the Blue Jays plans are for 2018 and beyond. If they’re expecting to contend next season, then there is no good reason to deal the backstop. Even as some of his skills have declined with age, he is still an excellent framer, a lauded pitch sequencer, and is showing signs that his offensive production may be able to age gracefully. In addition, there isn’t a clear successor to Martin at catcher. Now at AA, Danny Jansen is having a fantastic 2017 campaign, but the Blue Jays may be understandably weary about handing the starting job to him next season given his age and relative inexperience. After him, there isn’t much to speak of in terms of in-house options, and attempting to replace Martin with another catcher – either in-season or with a free agent in the winter – would present a challenging task in itself.
As we have seen the last couple of years, Martin’s value is at its highest on a contending team. If there’s any player that could be worth more than their production due to intangibles like clubhouse presence and leadership, Martin has proven that he is it. When combining these characteristics with the tools he’s shown he still has in his rebound 2017 campaign, the possibility of trading Russell Martin presents a considerable juncture moving forward, one whose impact will have far-reaching implications on the future of the franchise.
Lead Photo: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports