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A Deep Dive on the Potential Market for Russell Martin

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Is the front office smart to wait the market?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Here we find ourselves in 2019, the days getting longer, just six weeks until pitchers and catcher report, and the Blue Jays haven’t yet moved any of their veterans players as was expected at the outset of the offseason. Insofar as it appears that there has been a shift in recent years to conducting significant business in the New Year, this doesn’t necessarily the moves won’t be coming.

But it’s still at least somewhat surprising nothing has happened, particularly as it pertains to Russell Martin. With the youth movement firmly underway and the promotions of Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire having relegated him to the bench for most of September, eating most of his 2019 salary and moving Martin would seem the most evident course of action. At least to me — he’s still a useful player who can help a team playing for 2019, which the Jays aren’t.

In terms of maximizing value, with so many teams tanking and fewer teams (especially in the AL) actively contending, that means only so many potential candidate teams in play for a veteran like Martin. That pool has shrunk as the offseason has progressed:

  • Atlanta Braves signed Brian McCann to pair with the recently extended Tyler Flowers. It’s not the highest upside tandem, but two MLB contracts should take them out of the market.
  • Washington Nationals signed Kurt Suzuki, and the subsequent trade for Yan Gomes to start December gives them two established MLB options so they’re no longer in the market
  • New York Mets signed Wilson Ramos to be their primary starter, which not only removes a buyer but makes one of Travis d’Arnaud and Kevin Plawecki trade candidates, potentially adding to supply.
  • Houston Astros signed Robinson Chirinos
  • Most recently, the Los Angeles Angels added Jonathan Lucroy on a one year deal

With the front office showing little sense of urgency in moving Martin, I’ve had a sense of trepidation as the market and number of suitors has shrunk against the backdrop of a limited number of contenders. Whether waiting out a market to achieve better value is a good strategy or not depends entirely on the supply/demand dynamics of the specific market.

Specifically, in an market where there’s ultimately more supply than demand, it’s a very poor strategy since buyers gain leverage as transactions occur and the pool of buyers shrinks faster than the pool of supply. Conversely, in an undersupplied market, a seller can amplify their leverage as time goes on, because when the music stops we know someone’s going to left without a chair.

So go get a better sense of how the Jays are potentially playing their hand, I did a deep dive on the market for Russell Martin. That starts from the supply side — how many catchers are there available who are potential alternatives to or substitutable for Martin? He’s not the above average starter he once was, but given that he’s still a very good defender and projects to hit decently for the position, if suitors didn’t want to use him as a primary starter (~120 games), he could easily figure into a timeshare/platoon where he starts 80-100 games behind the plate.

The good news for the Jays is that the free agent market is now down to pretty slim pickings. Yasmani Grandal is the obvious headliner, but the only players who even potentially project as more than pure back-ups are Matt Wieters and Martin Maldonado. There’s Devin Mesoraco too I suppose, but he seems more like a potential flyer versus what contenders usually look for with his ups and downs.

The trade market adds more compelling options. Here too there’s an obvious headliner in J.T. Realmuto, whom the Marlins would be negligent not to move. The Mets figure to move one of Plawecki or d’Arnaud, and they could be potentially seen as substitutes for Martin by contenders. I think either would make more sense for a rebuilding team though.

Where things could get more interesting is teams that could make bona fida starters available. The Pirates reportedly had a deal in place to move Francisco Cervelli to the Dodgers, though the team rebutted the claim. Beyond him, would either San Francisco or Kansas City entertain offers on franchise icons Buster Posey or Salvador Perez if they could get premium prospects to accelerate a rebuild?

Summing up the supply side then, I see about six catcher who figure to be both available and are realistic alternatives to Martin for potential suitors. Maybe it ends up one or two higher, maybe it’s one or two less depending exactly what teams want, but that’s a decent baseline.

So let’s look at the demand side. I went through all 29 other teams, and rated them on a five point scale from 0 to 4 based on their apparent need for a veteran catcher or Russell Martin’s calibre or better. Rebuilding teams, contenders with bona fida starters or an established tandem scored at the bottom end. That’s most of the league and these 19 teams aren’t going to be factors for Martin. “2” was sort of a neutral measure for teams where it’s not clear what they do or where it’s unlikely but not impossible. I’ll circle back to these.

That left seven teams that should be looking at upgrades as teams looking to contend, and would appear to be the likeliest suitors:

  • Los Angeles Dodgers: They need an upgrade, Martin could be an ideal one year veteran bridge with a couple of potential prospects on the horizon
  • Philadelphia Phillies: 29th on FanGraphs depth charts, an obvious place to upgrade as they look to impact a wide open NL East (and can absorb salary)
  • Colorado Rockies: Chris Iannetta is at best a platoon option at this point.
  • Boston Red Sox: No shortage of options between Christian Vazquez, Sandy Leon and Blake Swihart. But none consistent/established as they look to hold off the Yankees.
  • Oakland Athletics: Have to think they upgrade over a tandem of Josh Phegley / Chris Herrmann.
  • Milwaukee Brewers: Martin could split time with Manny Pina as an upgrade over Erik Kratz, and infield versatility could be useful in NL
  • Cleveland: Moved Gomes, and Roberto Perez hasn’t hit in three years. A priority for their limited resources though?

That’s actually a pretty robust set of potential teams, especially compared with the available options once one gets past Grandal and Realmuto. With at least a couple of them, the Jays would probably have to eat almost all $20-million salary to make a deal work, but that’s probably what they should be looking to do anyway.

There’s a couple of other teams where it’s not clear exactly what direction they’re going in. The Arizona Diamondbacks acquired Carson Kelly, but if they’re still in on contending a veteran like Martin for one year could make sense (and he can act as a mentor). Minnesota is similarly in a weird place contention wise, but if they sensed Cleveland was vulnerable a catching upgrade could make sense. And finally, could the Yankees be interested in a reunion with Martin, splitting time behind the plate with Gary Sanchez with the latter getting some DH time to keep him healthy and his bat fresh?

All in all, it looks like the Blue Jays are in a pretty good position vis-à-vis Martin. Once the top of the market shakes out with Grandal and (presumably) Realmuto finding new homes, there will be a number of teams left out there needing help behind the plate with a pretty shallow pool of options. That should create an opportunity to realize some value while clearing the decks for the younger guys.