The signing of free agent Russell Martin to a five-year, $82 million contract is out of character for the Toronto Blue Jays under general manager Alex Anthopoulos.
And that’s why it’s the right move.
There will be fans and media members who question whether the Blue Jays spent too much on a soon-to-be 32-year-old catcher. When placed in the proper context, it’s obvious they didn’t.
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The baseball industry overall is flush with cash; industry revenues are around $9 billion annually, and each team’s national television revenue has increased by roughly $25 million — per year — under the new contract that began in 2014.
So, yes, the Blue Jays can afford this.
Because Major League Baseball is the lone major sport in North America operating without a salary cap, owners can approach major free agents as luxury and/or discretionary items. Thus, all dollars are not created equal. Blue Jays ownership wouldn’t have authorized an $82 million expenditure on, say, an armada of middle relievers. But it did here, for one of the few available free agents with the cachet to transform the team’s occasionally discordant clubhouse, someone who impacts the game with power, athleticism, pitch-framing and grit.
Conceptually, the move resembles the Royals’ trade for James Shields two offseasons ago: The team hadn’t reached the postseason in more than two decades, and its general manager needed to send a message — to fans and, more important, the roster — that expectations had changed. Within two years, Shields started Game 1 of the World Series.
Martin comes from Pittsburgh — where he helped halt the longest string of losing seasons in major North American professional sports — to another organization that must end a streak: The Blue Jays haven’t reached the postseason in 21 years, the longest drought in the major leagues.
For Martin, the quest will be personal. He was born in the Toronto area, grew up in Montreal and is one of the most decorated Canadian baseball players ever. He’s one of only seven Canadians to make at least three All-Star appearances, and he will be the first member of that group to play for what is (at the moment) the only MLB franchise in the country.
Martin is one of the game’s most respected players, with a vast network of connections across baseball thanks to his time with the large-market Dodgers and Yankees. His voice will be an important one for the franchise as Anthopoulos seeks to augment the existing cast.
Despite playing in one of the most dynamic and livable cities on the continent, the Blue Jays haven’t had an easy time attracting free agents — particularly Americans who aren’t used to going through customs on a frequent basis. Anthopoulos has been the GM in Toronto for more than five years; not once during that time has a U.S.-born free agent signed a multiyear contract with the Blue Jays.
Martin can help change that, in the same way Shields’ presence — and, now, an American League title — altered the way free agents viewed Kansas City. In the small and wealthy community of major league baseball players, word-of-mouth matters; winning does even more.
Martin may not duplicate the offensive numbers he posted during a career-best 2014: the .832 OPS and 11 home runs in 111 games. But the beauty of this deal is that he doesn’t have to, in order for this contract to be deemed a success.