DUNEDIN, Fla. – It’s almost as if the Blue Jays hatched a sinister plot on Russell Martin.
Sure, Russ, here’s that lavish five-year contract. And here’s a pitching staff with two rookie starters, two rookie relievers and a 40-year-old knuckleballer, OK?
“He’s got a full plate,” the knuckleballer, R.A. Dickey, said with a smile. “But hey, that’s why we paid him $82 million.”
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Dickey is correct — Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos coveted Martin as a free agent in part because he knew the team had a wave of young arms coming.
Now the Jays will find out just how much of an impact Martin will make on their staff. And the Pirates will find out just how much they will lose without him.
The comparison between the clubs will be one of the many fascinating storylines of the 2015 season.
Martin’s defensive excellence and strong leadership give the Jays confidence they can succeed with four rookie pitchers — starters Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris and relievers Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna.
The Pirates, meanwhile, are optimistic the catcher they acquired from the Yankees, Francisco Cervelli, will replicate much of what Martin offered defensively, if not his .832 OPS from 2014.
THE ART OF KNUCKLEBALL CATCHING
DUNEDIN, Fla. —
Russell Martin was sitting at his locker in the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, talking about catching the knuckleball, when former major-league catcher Sal Butera, a Jays coach, joined the conversation.
Butera caught knuckleballer Joe Niekro with the 1987 World Series champion Twins. Martin, the Jays’ big free-agent addition, is learning to catch right-hander R.A. Dickey, the game’s pre-eminent knuckleballer, this spring.
The two catchers engaged in a lively, fascinating conversation about the perils of handling knuckleball pitchers. Once Butera arrived, I didn’t even need to ask a question; he and Martin took it away, offering revealing thoughts one of the game’s most difficult skills.
Heck, Martin probably will not match that outlier; his OPS the previous five seasons had been .702. But the Jays will be a postseason threat if they get even league-average pitching to complement their dynamic lineup. And that’s where Martin should make a difference.
As Anthopoulos notes, many of a catcher’s defensive skills — blocking, throwing, framing — are quantifiable. But not all.
“The part you can’t quantify is the confidence he brings to the guys on the mound,” Anthopoulos said. “The intangible component, the leadership component, the swagger, the mentality.”
The Pirates, remember, had similar ideas when they signed Martin to a two-year, $17 million free-agent contract after the 2012 season. Martin became a pivotal figure in the team’s defensive transformation, helping the club end its 21-year postseason drought with back-to-back playoff appearances.
The Blue Jays present a different challenge.
Martin, 32, is making progress in learning to catch Dickey’s knuckler. And though young pitchers require a different form of nurturing — “they don’t know exactly what works for them,” Martin said — he’s excited by the Jays’ dizzying collection of power arms.
“It’s not just the arms. It’s the pitchability. The guys know what they’re doing,” Martin said. “They’re not just firing balls in there and throwing. They’re actually executing pitches and have an idea of what they want to do out there. That’s what I was impressed with — the pitching savvy of the young guys.”
The Pirates are in almost the opposite position — their staff is more seasoned, lacking a single rookie. But Cervelli, due mostly to a series of freakish injuries, remains relatively inexperienced, even at 29.
His career-high in games is 93 in 2010, and in the four seasons since he has appeared in a total of 112. Cervelli, acknowledging that he is “thinking big,” said his goal this season is to play 140 games.
The Pirates, unlike most clubs, have two capable backups, Tony Sanchez and Chris Stewart. They’re developing two highly regarded prospects, Elias Diaz and Reese McGuire. But they acquired Cervelli for left-handed reliever Justin Wilson in November knowing they would need a No. 1, knowing they were about to lose Martin.
Cervelli will earn $987,500 this season, after which he has one more year of arbitration before becoming a free agent.
“Our goal was to back-fill the defense as best we could, to get a guy who would sell out to those 12 pitchers, who would bring energy, who would bring leadership, who could receive, block, throw, call a game,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “In our minds, Cervelli was the best guy we could get to do that. And we also were intrigued by his bat.
“We’ve been very open with him. We’re not expecting him to replace what Russ Martin did for us a year ago. That’s almost impossible to do. We just need him to be Francisco Cervelli. And if we can help him stay healthy, we believe that his impact as well as what we’ve been able to do elsewhere on the club will help us absorb the loss of Russ.”
Cervelli said at first that it was “a little weird” to leave the Yankees, who signed him as an amateur free agent in 2003; when Brian Cashman informed him of the trade, he realized it was the first time the GM had ever called him.
The chance for Cervelli to start, however, is another first, and he is responding to it with his typical enthusiasm. He impressed the Pirates with his energy and passion in early bullpen sessions and has maintained that vigor throughout camp.
“Once I saw Cervelli, I was like, ‘Hey, cool. This is good,’ ” Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said. “He’s not going to fill Russell’s shoes. But he’ll stand next to Russell’s shoes. He’ll learn. And he’ll get that much better.”
Added Pirates ace Gerrit Cole, “Francisco has come in with the mentality that he’s here to learn, get better every day — and that fits in with the identity of the team. He can handle anybody behind the plate. Learning the pitchers, fine-tuning the game plan, is the only step we have left.”
Martin, who was Cervelli’s teammate with the Yankees in 2011-12, recalled that one of the Pirates’ biggest problems before they signed him was their inability to control the running game.
Cervelli, in Martin’s view, will help ensure that the team does not revert to its previous ways. The pitchers also will help, Martin said — they’ve gained a better understanding of the importance of limiting extra bases, keeping double plays intact.
Run prevention, after all, is a team effort.
Searage, bullpen coach Euclides Rojas and pitching guru Jim Benedict play pivotal roles for the Pirates. The advance scouts put together a plan. The pitchers execute that plan. Martin could adjust it based on what he saw from the hitters and undoubtedly provided an edge. But it’s not as if he is some type of Svengali.
“Cervelli can bring some things,” Martin said. “He’s a good receiver. He can throw runners out. I’m not expecting him to have the same offensive season I did last year. But they don’t need him to do that.
“They’ve got Pedro (Alvarez) back in the lineup, J-Hay (Josh Harrison), Cutch (Andrew McCutchen), (Starling) Marte, (Neil) Walker. It’s not (Jose) Bautista-(Josh) Donaldson-(Edwin) Encarnacion. But for the National League, it’s nonstop. They’ve got speed. They can hurt you in a lot of ways.”
The Pirates will not be the same without Martin. The Blue Jays will not be the same with him.
After this season, his value will be that much clearer.