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On Russell Martin and the Blue Jays moving forward

The future and the contract

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

2018 was a strange year for Russell Martin. He started very slowly, such that despite solid production from May onward his batting average stayed below the Mendoza well past the All-Star Break. He didn’t hit much at all, but stayed productive by drawing free passes (as many walks as hits, plus 7 HBP). Defensively, he continued to rate very strongly behind the plate. He caught fire in late July, pushing his wRC+ to triple digits before falling back in the second half of August as most of his starts shifted to third base. And then, he didn’t play at all after September 3rd.

That was of course attributable to first the call-up of Danny Jansen (on August 12th, after which Martin caught just three games) and then that of Reese McGuire after Labour Day. And while I wasn’t totally sold on Jansen behind the plate, the bat looked ready and it’s clear his development is best served at the big league level in an everyday capacity. For better or worse, he’s (the catcher of) the future — and Martin is not.

The question then is what to do with Martin in the last year of his contract. He’s not the above-average, 120 game everyday starter he was a few years ago, but he’s still a productive player. His ability to get on-base means that even without much else he’s still above the positional average for offensive production (catchers posted an 84 wRC+ in 2018 compared to 91 overall for Martin and 98 while catching).

Even accounting for some further age-related slippage, he should still be able to meet that very low offensive bar for the catching position, especially for a team that can stick him at the bottom of the lineup to set the table for the big bats at the top of the lineup. He doesn’t have the arm he used to, but is still a very good framer, blocker and (more amorphously) game calling. Perhaps not an everyday regular, but at least a player capable of 300-400 of solid value.

And that doesn’t fit with Jansen. One workaround I’ve seen floated is to use him as more of a true utility player — do something with Luke Maile (option or trade), have Martin catch 50-60 games as the backup, and a similar number on the infield, mostly at third. Thereby keeping the hometown veteran as a mentor for the young players.

It’s not without merit, but I don’t think it makes sense for at least is close to optimal for either side. The Blue Jays already have a glut of infield options to sort through, and that’s before introducing the guy who torched the Eastern and International Leagues into the mix next April. There’s simply better uses for the playing time in a developmental season, as well as being able to use the 40-man spot over the winter. And even if Jansen flops and the bottom falls out as in 2016 behind him, you’re not worried about losing even 3 or 4 wins in rebuilding year.

Moreover, Martin is practically the prototype of the veteran type that contending teams look for, and at the position where it might actually be meaningful. Maybe Martin prefers to stay in Toronto, but he’s only going to have so many more opportunities to be a contributor on a contender, and it frankly seems like being on the 2019 Blue Jays would be a waste of his talent. I don’t see a way that moving him this winter is not the right move.

The elephant in the room is the contract — the $20-million salary he’s due next year. There’s always teams looking for quality help behind the plate, and as MLBTR’s catching market snapshot shows, there’s no shortage of contending teams with needs for a catcher to at least split time behind the plate. But not at that rate.

But that $20-million obligation as 2019 salary is a huge misnomer to begin with. If we go back to when Martin was signed, the reporting was the Cubs were offering 4 years at $16-million per year, and the Jays won the day by offering the fifth guaranteed year at same rate. That gets us to $80-million total, but the actual contract ended up at $82-million.

Why? The most logical explanation is Martin’s contract was heavily backloaded, most particularly with a salary hit of just $7-million in 2015. Comparing $16-million each year with the actual salaries yields about 6.5% as a discount rate, which is a reasonable figure for what would want as an opportunity cost to defer money (especially if you’re in the driver’s seat, as the Jays really wanted Martin).

Effectively then, Martin loaned the Jays $9-million in 2015 and $1-million in 2016, repaid with interest in $4-million annual chunks from 2017-19. At a very minimum then, $4-million of that $20-million 2019 commitment relates almost directly to past services. If it was treated the financing transacting it effectively was and is, it wouldn’t even be a part of the discussion.

But it actually goes well beyond that. While the contract was back loaded, the (expected) on-field production when signing a free agent over 30 is heavily frontloaded. In Martin’s case, something like 60% of the deal’s production could be expected in the first years, while less than 30% of the salary was paid. In consequence, a lot of the money in the last three years is making up for this. So what amount of the contract is really about 2019?

Martin contract

In the chart above, I’ve modelled Martin as a 3.5 WAR player in the first year of the deal, with a modest 0.5 WAR decline in year two, then 0.75 thereafter as he got into his mid-30s, when players really decline. In total, it works out to about 11 wins, with 6.5 in the first two years, which is at least reasonable One can quibble with the exact numbers, but it doesn’t make much difference for our purposes.

We can then look at what the annual salaries would be if the total $82-million contract were allocated annually by expected production. In 2015, the Jays “should” have paid $26-million instead of the $7-million they did. Conversely, by 2018 you’d only expect Martin to be about a 1.5 WAR player to which $11-million of the deal is attributed, and even less in 2019 with a sub-1 WAR expectation and just $5.6-million. What’s most remarkable is the degree to which Martin’s aging has been a curve.

This isn’t quite technically right, since just as backloading the money is assumed to have increased the total value from $80- to $82-million to account for time value, frontloading the money would reduce the total. The last row of the chart shows that, which increases the 2019 amount to $6.2-million, but it’s essentially immaterial.

So what we can essentially say is that of the $20-million owed to Martin in 2019, something like $6-million relates to what his would have been his expected production, and $14-million is really about paying for the past. The $14-million is essentially a loan repayment, and should be thought of as such in thinking about Martin and his contracts in terms of assets and liability.

This has obvious implications. Russell Martin at $20-million for 2019 is an underwater contract. At $6-million, it’s an attractive contract with at some value and that should bring back some sort of return. Likely not a huge haul, but it’s a situation similar to Justin Smoak.

That said, there’s a lot of different the Jays could still go. If the budget were tight, they could choose to eat less in a trade, accepting very little in return. That could make sense if the market isn’t very robust and the players offered were similar in upside to existing organizational options. But I’d expect enough budget flexibility they could go the other way, eat even more of the money if necessary, to secure a higher calibre player/prospect.

Regardless, it will be interesting to see how the Martin situation plays out this winter.