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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Blair On Martin and Tulo Is… Uh… Weird

You’d have to be crazy to deny that the Blue Jays have some tough questions to face going forward when it comes to Troy Tulowitzki, and, to a much lesser extent, Russell Martin. Just how big a problem are these two for 2018, though? If you go by Jeff Blair’s scawwwwy latest for Sportsnet, pretty frickin’ enormous!

Let’s go through it a little bit, shall we?

i.

The Jays, Blair tells us, have “added a regular catcher to their list of off-season needs.” This, in and of itself, isn’t such a big deal. The Jays’ backups have been awful and Martin is getting older and is currently hurt.

It’s undeniable that having a big league calibre backup would be a great thing for the club, but how much of a priority should this be?

This year the club has tried to find a caddy for Martin on the cheap, and I’m sure we can all agree that they’ve failed to do so. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Luke Maile, Miguel Montero, Mike Ohlman, and Raffy Lopez have all worn the gear for the Jays, and boy have they sucked!  But how hard are we supposed to think they should go to get better? Because the thing is, you’re not getting a free agent who could get starter money and starter playing time elsewhere to come in and be your backup — even at top end backup money. If you could find a solution via trade, that would be great, but what the hell is that going to cost?

Blair’s implication is that cost probably shouldn’t be too prohibitive, because what we’re actually talking about is the Jays having a “desperate need” for “a receiver who can play, say, three out of every seven days while giving a representative effort both defensively and offensively” — something compounded by the fact that apparently Martin is suffering “through the worst offensive year of his Major League career.”

I’m not sure what metric Blair is using there, but by wRC+ Martin was worse last year, as well as in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. And he posted an identical 102 mark in 2013. The power is declining, but the .354 on-base Russell has produced has been great — better than all but one of his seasons since 2008 — and the injury concerns that are raised ring a touch hollow given that Martin played in 137 games last season and 129 the year before.

Granted, Martin was playing hurt in a whole lot of those games, and his performance at the plate suffered for it. And I can’t sit here and write with a straight face that I think it’s a good idea to expect him to catch 140 games next year, or to maintain even this year’s level of production. I’m not saying Jeff’s wrong or the club is wrong for wanting to have a better backup. It’s the desperation bit that I don’t quite get. Every single team has to make compromises of one kind or another, and when Russell Martin is already here, and you’ve already got $20 million invested in the position, and you’ve got a couple interesting pieces in the pipeline that might make sense in 2019 but probably not in 2018, how hard do you really go here? What should fans be demanding be done, exactly?

And, more pressingly, how the hell do you even do it?

The thing is, backup catchers are bad! A whole bunch of starting catchers are bad, too! Blair suggests an “ideal solution” is a tandem like Evan Gattis and Brian McCann in Houston, who combined have been only worth 2.2 WAR per FanGraphs (Martin alone has been worth 1.8). He cites Roberto Perez (-0.4) and Yan Gomes (0.9) of Cleveland as another potential model for the Jays, which… uh… Gomes’ 81 wRC+ is nearly double Perez’s (42). And his other ideal pairing, Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez of Boston, have combined for a whole 1.0 WAR.

A look at this winter’s free agent crop, or the potential trade candidates among next winter’s crop, doesn’t exactly present an easy solution. At least not if we frame it the way Blair has. But if we point out, say, that if the Jays’ backups this year had merely been replacement level that the club would be just about in the top 10 in the league at the position, it maybe doesn’t seem quite that urgent.

I’m not saying don’t aim higher than that. I just don’t think it would be ridiculous if they ended up in a similar situation, hoping a veteran backup has more left in the tank than it looks, or trying to find someone relatively cheap who won’t absolutely kill you. That’s just the reality of the position across the league right now.

I also bristle at it when objectives like this are floated without the caveat about compromises being necessary. I still encounter people trying to skewer Ross Atkins for saying he wanted to get younger and faster last winter, and failing so clearly to do so because he made compromises on that in order to put as good a team on the field as he felt possible with the resources he had available. These things aren’t easy!

They’re not always as necessary as we’re led to believe either.

ii.

OK, so I wrote much more about catching and Russell Martin than I intended to, so this bit about Blair’s comments on Troy Tulowitzki is going to seem small in comparison. But I’m going to push on with it anyway, because… COME ON, MAN

At some point, president and CEO Mark Shapiro will need to ask ownership a delicate question: is there a way payroll could be increased to absorb the sunk cost of Tulowitzki and still maintain an effective payroll near $160 million (U.S.)?

If the answer is no, then the Blue Jays face the likelihood of improving their below-average defence and offence with a statue at shortstop who doesn’t hit enough to be a legitimate option at any other position even if he agreed to move.

Most of this I have no problem with. If the Jays could defer some Tulo money or otherwise convince ownership to give them some more breathing room, that would be great. And obviously Tulo is in decline, and obviously the injuries are a problem. Can’t deny that. But I don’t think the other stuff is particularly fair.

For one, this “statue at shortstop” ranks 19th among 41 shortstops with at least 250 PA by DRS this season (he’s a +1), and 28th by UZR (-1.7). Those aren’t good numbers, don’t get me wrong, but a lot of teams are running worse guys out there. Also, I hesitate to any longer use the “and also he was hurt” excuse, because Tulo, sadly, is always hurt and each time he returns to the field doesn’t mean that his skills return all the way to their previous levels, however, it was just last year that he was +10 by DRS and +4.9 by UZR — numbers well in line with what he did in 2013 through 2015, as well. I get being poetic, and I’m not saying just what the hell Tulo will bring in 2018 (not to mention 2019 and 2020) shouldn’t be of great concern to the Jays, it just doesn’t have to be all negative. The 2016 version of Tulo — good defence, almost three wins, league average bat — would be fine and isn’t necessarily too much to ask. It’s just, y’know, probably too much to ask.

For two, “doesn’t hit enough” implies that the 260 plate appearances Tulo took this season are the new normal. While I’m as worried as anybody about the mess that his season has been, and am all for the club finding a piece that can mitigate the damage if Tulo is hurt or no good better than Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney currently are (which they maybe already have in Lourdes Gurriel?), but that’s just a little too definitive for my taste.

This is another place where they’re surely just going to have to compromise — to take what they can get from their expensive player and to build in the best contingencies possible. Fans hate having to rely on guys they’ve deemed unreliable, but in a whole lot of cases, all things considered, the alternative is nowhere close to better. We’d all love to see either healthy and productive Tulo or a top class shortstop magically appearing and enabling the club to eat what remains on Tulo’s contract and say goodbye, but they’ve got to play the hand they’ve been dealt. And I guess what I’m trying to say here is, it’s maybe not quite as bad a hand as Blair makes it out to be.

(It doesn’t hurt that most of the rest of the AL is traaaaaaaaaash, either.)

  • The Humungus

    “And his other ideal pairing, Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez of Boston, have combined for a whole 1.0 WAR.”

    He and Buck talked about this this morning, saying that Leon and Vazquez could both be starters, and the first thought in my head was “yeah, it’s easy to have two passable starting catchers when both of them are pre-arb.”

    As for the Tulo stuff, I dunno. Blair really seems to have 2017 fatigue at this point, and he’s really dismissing most team-related topics (especially the negative stuff) with gusto the last few weeks. I don’t blame him, but ugh, it’s been a hard listen on the second half of my drive.

      • The Humungus

        Right?! There’s like, what, 6 good catchers in all of baseball? I mean guys who can hit and play the position, so we’re not counting Gary Sanchez here.

        Looking at Fangraphs, sorting by position and going by 250PA min (which gets us basically all the starters in MLB), Russell is 10th by WAR. Tied with Sal Perez and Yadi Molina at 1.8! And half the guys in front of him are worse defenders! (Posey, Sanchez, Perez, Flowers and Avila all grade out worse than Muscle)

  • Tom Flawless

    Good piece, Stoeten. I heard Blair’s commentary this morning and I agree that his concern at the catcher spot seems a bit misplaced. I’d been under the impression that Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire, or Mike Ohlman would emerge as the main backup catcher in 2018. It’s not a big deal if the Jays have to spend $3 million on this spot, but it’s obviously preferable if someone decent makes 500k. They’re already swelling up with catching prospects at the lower levels; they’ll need some the guys at AA and AA to progress in the next two seasons. It’s a *good* thing that in the coming years they’ll be less reliant on adding Maile, Graterol, and Lopez types from other franchises.

    Oddly enough, it still seems to me like Morales, as a full-time DH stands in the way of the team’s plan for Martin, at least in one respect. I.e., if the OF gets younger and more athletic/durable, Martin seems like a natural fit for some DH days + some games at 3B while Donaldson DHs.

  • jerjapan

    The FO doesn’t rush guys, so the plan for Jansen may be to start the year in AAA, but the kid is looking close to ready IMO. McGuire has been hitting since he came back and would be another option by midseason. Give me a Chris Ianetta type (1.5 million last offseason) and we are good to go.

  • Terry Mesmer

    I was disappointed when the Jays traded Juan Graterol. He can’t hit but seems like a good reciever and throws guys out.

    But I might have taken Tyler Heineman in the Rule 5 draft. A switch-hitter with some on-base ability and a good arm seems like a step above the typical backup dreck.