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Richard Griffin: Blue Jays got their money’s worth from Russell Martin

Richard Griffin: Blue Jays got their money’s worth from Russell Martin
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The Blue Jays and Dodgers completed a trade on Friday, sending catcher Russell Martin back to his original team for the 2019 season.

In exchange, the Jays received a pair of minor leaguers: shortstop Ronny Brito, a three-year pro from the Dominican Republic, and right-hander Andrew Sopko, the Dodgers’ seventh-round draft pick in 2015. The Jays will pick up the majority of the $20 million due for the final season of Martin’s five-year, $82-million deal (all dollars U.S.).

Veteran catcher Russell Martin, who spent his first five seasons with the Dodgers, is back in L.A. after Friday’s trade with the Blue Jays.  (Jeff Gross / Getty Images file photo)

The Jays are left with 12 guaranteed contracts totalling $51.325 million, led by DH Kendrys Morales at $12 million. He’s followed by starter Marcus Stroman at $7.4 million, closer Ken Giles at $6.3 million and first baseman Justin Smoak at $6 million. Three more roster players are eligible for arbitration: starter Aaron Sanchez, reliever Ryan Tepera and outfielder Kevin Pillar.

The Martin trade was all but inevitable, especially once the Jays had agreed in December to release shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and the remaining $38 million owed on his contract through 2020, including a buyout of 2021. The Martin shuffle — clearing the deck by trading a veteran whose usefulness to a team in a rebuild was not needed — would have been the ideal situation for Tulowitzki, but the rehabbing 32-year-old Tulo had not played a game for the Jays since July 28, 2017, making it impossible to secure even a package of fringe prospects.

The writing had been on the clubhouse wall for Martin, who did not appear in a game after Sept. 3 this past season, handing over catching duties down the stretch to the trio of Luke Maile plus rookies Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire. That threesome will likely vie for two spots on the opening day roster.

There was one train of thought that Martin could return to the 25-man Jays roster as a high-priced utilityman, lending a veteran presence to a clubhouse of young position players. He played some third base in 2018, along with a game at shortstop and one in left field. However, his last five starts were all at third base between Aug. 24 and Sept. 3 — all five of them losses.

Martin had played the infield at Chipola College, but was moved behind the plate by the Dodgers at instructional league in 2002. His shortcomings in the infield finally came into focus as a starter. He struggled on balls in front of him, making him a non-candidate for late-inning duty when defence is a priority.

If he wasn’t going to catch regularly and he was defensively unreliable as an infielder, then there was really no room on a four-man bench for Martin, despite his hefty salary. He hit .194 in 91 games with a .663 OPS.

The Dodgers allowed catcher Yasmani Grandal to leave as a free agent and kept Austin Barnes, who can also play other positions. The Dodgers are believed to still be interested in acquiring all-star catcher J.T. Realmuto from the Marlins. In either case, Martin would not be expected to carry the bulk of the workload behind the plate in L.A., especially with the Jays paying most of his salary.

As the off-season wore on, the many teams with catching questions saw their options dwindle through free-agent signings and trades. The market for Martin heated up. The Jays were always going to pay the lion’s share of the remaining season on his contract, but the return of two Dodgers prospects is at least something.

The fact is, Martin served his original purpose as a key free-agent acquisition for the Jays, helping to end the 21-year playoff drought in 2015. Consider the contract $80 million for four years instead of five, then consider what the Jays accomplished.

Martin joined the Jays after reaching the post-season for four straight seasons with the Yankees (2011-12) and Pirates (2013-14). The Bucs had not even finished.500 since Barry Bonds left Pittsburgh. Martin’s impressive history as a winner includes nine trips to the playoffs in 13 seasons. When he has played 110-plus games, his teams have advanced nine out of 10 times. The Jays advanced to the AL Championship Series in 2015 and 2016, losing to the Royals and Indians. The money spent was worth it.

The Jays — after divesting themselves of Martin and Tulowitzki — have just nine players remaining who played at least an inning in 2016, the first season under president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins. That book has officially been closed. Fans should chill about the salary still owed to Tulo and Martin and simply enjoy the memories of those two trips deep into October that would not have happened otherwise.

If either of the prospects in this trade with the Dodgers ever reaches the majors, it would be a bonus.

Brito, 19, is one of the top defenders from the 2015-16 Dominican class. Ranked 23rd among Dodgers prospects by MLB.com, he broke his leg late in his first pro season in the States in 2017, and his switch-hitting offence is still a work in progress. Sopko, drafted as a senior from Gonzaga University in 2015, is not listed among the Dodgers’ top 30 at age 24. He is 29-19 in the minors with a 3.55 ERA in 4131/3 innings, topping out at Double-A (43 games in three years), and must be considered minor-league depth.

Meanwhile, the Jays will continue to try to add power arms in building for the future, two years down the road.
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