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Photo Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

The Blue Jays’ magic started with Russell Martin

I can vividly recall where I was and what I was doing when the Blue Jays signed Russell Martin to a five-year/$82 million dollar contract. I couldn’t tell you what I ate for breakfast yesterday, but I can remember clear as day how the Martin signing went down.

It stemmed from this tweet from Peter Gammons: “Told Toronto got Martin for McCann money”. The details were so scarce and unspecific that they had to be true. Shortly thereafter, Jays Twitter spun into chaos.

Martin was coming home to Canada to sign with the Blue Jays.

Prior to the official announcement, there were rumours the Blue Jays were interested in the veteran catcher, but it didn’t feel like a strong possibility that Martin would choose the Jays over any other team. It turns out that the Canadian kid wanted to play for Canada’s team.

Five years, $82 million dollars guaranteed. It was the largest sum of money the Blue Jays ever committed to a free agent. If ever there was a player to break the bank for, it was Martin. He was the complete package; an offensive threat, an on-base machine and revered for his defensive ability.

Alex Anthopoulos was dead-set on signing Martin. During the introductory press conference, Anthopolous revealed he was relentless in his pursuit of the veteran catcher, telling Martin’s agent during negotiations “Hey, just so you know, I’m signing the player.”

Martin had a few four-year deals on the table, but the Blue Jays were reportedly the only club willing to go above and beyond with a guaranteed fifth year. Ironically enough, that fifth guaranteed year was the key factor in convincing Martin to sign with the Blue Jays, yet he’ll play that fifth year in Los Angeles with the Dodgers.

At first, the signing seemed unnecessary because the Blue Jays already had a catcher under contract: Dioner Navarro. Martin was a vast improvement at the catcher’s position. Not to mention, he made six consecutive postseason appearances and was looking to make it seven straight years of October baseball.

Looking back at the 2015 Blue Jays roster, it’s easy to pinpoint to the key contributors. Josh Donaldson won an MVP in 2015. David Price finished second in Cy Young voting. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion posted ungodly numbers that year, as well.

But that magical 2015 season (and 2016 season) all started with the signing of Martin.

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The Blue Jays had a tonne of talent on their roster in 2015, but it’s arguable whether the Blue Jays even make the postseason that year if Martin isn’t the team’s full-time catcher. He contributed a 3.5 win season in 2015, which stands as the best overall season by a Blue Jays catcher, according to FanGraphs.

Without Martin behind the dish, do the Blue Jays win the AL East title and squash their 22-year playoff drought in 2015? I’m not so sure. He posted one of the best seasons ever by a Blue Jay catcher that season.

Martin’s signing was the first domino to fall into place for the Blue Jays’ 2015 and 2016 playoff runs. I often wonder if the Blue Jays missed out on signing Martin, would they still sell the farm for Donaldson? To me, those two moves were invariably tied together for the Blue Jays. It’s similar to how the Blue Jays signed free agents Jack Morris and Dave Winfield on consecutive days in mid-December of 1991.

Martin was front and centre during many of the Blue Jays’ seminal moments during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Heck, he nearly caused bedlam in Blue Jays Land during Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS when the ball he threw bounced off Shin-Soo Choo’s bat. If not for Jose Bautista’s heroics, we might still be talking about how the Blue Jays were eliminated from the 2015 postseason in the worst way imaginable.

Martin’s presence on the Blue Jays’ roster the last four seasons cannot be understated. Donaldson was the lead singer and Bautista was the lead guitarist, but there was Martin in the back as the drummer, keeping time and playing an invaluable role on the club.

One extremely underrated aspect about the Blue Jays signing Martin to an $82 million deal? By taking less money up front (he made only $5 million in year one of his deal), it provided the Blue Jays some much-needed payroll flexibility at the 2015 trade deadline. This allowed them to take on salaries like Troy Tulowitzki’s and David Price’s.

During his appearance on The Lede podcast, one of the things Anthopoulos lamented about the Blue Jays’ 2014 season was not leaving enough wiggle room in the club’s payroll to pick up salary at the trade deadline. As most will remember, the club was hamstrung at the deadline and did very little to beef up their roster at the 2014 trade deadline.

Anthopoulos wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. If Martin’s contract was front-loaded, the Blue Jays wouldn’t have the money to make a play for All-Stars like Tulo and Price and the litany of reinforcements they added in July of 2015.

There are still nine Blue Jays remaining from those teams, but Martin was the final mainstay from those 2015 and 2016 Blue Jays playoff rosters. With his departure from Toronto, a beloved era of Blue Jays baseball officially comes to an end.

In today’s era, a five-year deal for a 32-year catcher would be absolutely ludicrous, but Martin was one of the rare instances when a free agent delivers exactly what’s expected. He produced more on the front end of the contract and was underpaid the first few years of the deal. Even as his offensive numbers declined, he still brought defensive value and posted the Jays’ third-base on-base percentage the last two years combined.

The 35-year-old ends his four-year tour in Toronto as one of the best catchers ever to wear a Blue Jays uniform (shoutout to Ernie Whitt, who might arguably be the best). Martin had several seminal moments as a Blue Jay, but his contributions can be distilled into three words (actually, one word repeated three times) …

RUSSELL RUSSELL RUSSELL