This is one part of an off-season series that reviews how the Blue Jays did position-by-position in 2017 and how they look heading into 2018.
The catcher position was one of multiple disasters for the Blue Jays in 2017. Russell Martin was good when he was healthy, but multiple injuries limited him to just 83 games behind the plate. Beyond Martin, the Jays weren’t able to find an effective backup catcher. That’s pretty standard at the Major League level, but it became very debilitating during his two disabled list trips.
Heading into 2018, the Jays are obviously rolling with Martin again as their starting catcher as he has two more years left on his five-year, $82 million contract. Given the budget, it’ll be difficult to find anyone better than replacement level to back him up, but if Martin does go down with an injury, the Jays have some interesting prospect depth at the position that could be given an opportunity.
What went down last season
Heading into the season, Russell Martin was pencilled in as the team’s starting catcher. That’s a good thing, because when he’s healthy, Russ is one of the best all-around catchers in baseball. The Jays let Josh Thole, R.A. Dickey’s much maligned personal backup catcher, walk in the off-season and inked Jarrod Saltalamacchia to back up Martin.
We thought Thole was bad? Holy hell, we were in for a lesson. The backup catcher spot was an uncomfortable game of musical chairs all season.
Salty played in 10 games for the team. In his first start, he recorded a double, which would be his only hit as a member of the Blue Jays. After 10 games and 26 plate appearances, the Jays designated Salty for assignment and released him. He stuck on with a minor league deal with for Buffalo Bisons for a few weeks, but got cut loose again.
Luke Maile, who was claimed off of waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays a few days into the season, was recalled from Triple-A and assumed backup duties. While Maile was pretty strong defensively and was praised for his game calling abilities, he was completely useless with the bat. The Jays grabbed Miguel Montero from the Cubs after the veteran catcher was designated for assignment for getting into beef with his teammates. He was far from the effective player he was during Chicago’s World Series championship during his stint with Toronto. They also used Mike Ohlman and Raffy Lopez, both of whom were depth players signed to minor league deals in the off-season.
When Martin was healthy, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Backup catchers are bad. There are few few teams in the league who have backup catchers that aren’t bad. But when Martin was injured for a month between mid-August and mid-September? Oh boy.
All told, Toronto’s catchers were worth 0.3 wins above replacement according to FanGraphs. That’s pretty impressive considering Martin was worth 1.8 wins himself. Between Salty, Maile, Montero, Ohlman, and Lopez, Blue Jays catchers were worth a whopping -1.5 wins. Lopez was the best of the bunch, posting a .769 OPS and 0.3 wins, Ohlman didn’t play enough to make a difference, and the other three were heavily in the red at -0.6 wins each.
What to expect next season
As they have the last three seasons, the Blue Jays will roll into 2018 with Russell Martin as their starting catcher. Like I said, that’s a good thing. Even in a down season, he slashed a .211/.343/.388 line, clubbed 13 bombs, and was rock solid behind the plate. If he’s healthy, Russ will make the team better. But that’s a big if. Can the Jays bank on Russell Martin being healthy?
In February, Martin turns 35 years old. He’s played 1520 games over his 12-season Major League Baseball career. Catching is a taxing position to play and he saw a lot of action in 2015 and 2016 on teams that went on deep playoff runs. In 2017, Martin appeared in 83 games behind the plate thanks to two trips to the disabled list, one for an oblique injury and one for shoulder soreness, and some lingering issues that forced him to the designated hitter slot. He also played a little bit of third base, partially because the team was a disaster and partially because of wear and tear from catching.
There’s obviously no way to predict how Martin’s health will be next season. His injuries in 2017 weren’t related and didn’t require any kind of major off-season surgery, so that’s a positive. It’s simply just the grind of playing such a physically demanding position.
One thing we do know, though, is that the Blue Jays need a better backup catcher option than they had last season. Buuuuuuuuuut the thing about backup catchers is, uh, they’re bad! I bet you can’t even name the backup catcher the Houston Astros had on their roster when they won the World Series earlier this week.
Both Luke Maile and Raffy Lopez are still under control but serve better as organizational depth rather than the second catcher you go into the season with. The free agent market doesn’t exactly boast a bevy of interesting catchers, as Jonathan Lucroy, Alex Avila, and Montero are probably the best options available. With Martin making $20 million, the Jays obviously aren’t going to be ponying up a bunch of cash for a second catcher. And the more money they spend on a backup catcher, the less budget they have to spend on other positions of need, like another starting pitcher, a corner outfielder, and a capable infielder.
An interesting name to watch is Danny Jansen. At this time last year, he wasn’t on anyone’s radar, but after a great showing in the Arizona Fall League and a breakout season in the minors that saw him play in three different levels, Jansen has rocketed up the organization’s depth chart. Between Dunedin, New Hampshire, and Buffalo, Jansen played 104 games and posted an .884 OPS. His profile originally was that of a big, strong catcher with a good glove, so the fact he figured out how to hit is a major plus. There’s also Reese McGuire, who was acquired as a prize for taking on Francisco Liriano’s money, who doesn’t hit well but has an excellent defensive game, and former first round pick Max Pentecost in the system behind Jansen.
It seems likely that given the importance of their other needs, the Jays will opt to go the same route they did last season, bringing in a cheap, veteran backup for Russell Martin. If Martin gets injured, there’s a good chance Jansen or another prospect will be given an extended opportunity at the Major League level.