Toronto Blue Jays: Time to invest in a backup catcher

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 02: Russell Martin
CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 02: Russell Martin /

Aside from an additional starting pitcher, is the back-up catcher position the biggest remaining need for the Toronto Blue Jays?

Russell Martin has been a great signing for the Toronto Blue Jays so far. From 2015-17, he has accumulated a 7.2 WAR and $57.5M in $/WAR, not counting any additional value he has added via pitch framing over that span. His leadership and ability to handle a pitching staff has been invaluable to this team’s playoff success in two of the past three years.

However, at the start of the 2018 season, Martin will have turned 35. While his hitting has remained league average and he’s still a good player overall, chances are he cannot be counted on to carry too heavy of a workload anymore. Prioritizing more rest could prove instrumental in keeping him healthier and more productive over the course of a long season.

The issue with giving Martin more rest? Horrendous projected performance at the back-up catcher position.

Over the past two seasons, the team’s back-up catchers have provided a combined WAR of -2.2. Last season, it was an alarming -1.5. In other words, just having a replacement level back-up catcher could increase this team’s projected win total by a game. Maybe more.

Early projections for Luke Maile‘s 2018 season involve him having a wRC+ of around 40-60, depending on which system you want to focus on. Which means, there is a very good chance to get negative production from that spot again this coming season.

For a team that is trying to compete in 2018, getting as much incremental improvement as they can is the only way to add wins to their projected total and put them in a better position to possibly sneak into a playoff spot. It just so happens that back-up catcher is one area where the Toronto Blue Jays could get a lot more value out of it’s limited remaining funds.

Having two legitimate catching prospects in Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire, both on the 40-man roster, will make the depth slightly better. However, why not spend a little bit more on a back-up catcher?

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Realistically, catchers that are any good will likely avoid agreeing to back-up Martin for a full season, so it will be difficult to find a good one, but there are options.

Carlos Ruiz, 39, is nearly at the end of his career, but still graded out positively defensively in 2017 as the back-up catcher for the Mariners, and put up a 0.5 WAR in 54 games. To put that in perspective, if the team had Ruiz as their back-up in 2017, they would have been two wins better off.

Obviously, for a 76-win team, those two wins mean nothing, but for a team that is currently projected at 85 wins, and wants to squeeze a bit more out of it? It could potentially make a huge difference.

Alex Avila, back in November, stated he was willing to be a back-up catcher for a winning team.

Avila is coming off a career season, finishing with a 124 wRC+ and 2.5 WAR for the Tigers and Cubs in 2017. Current Steamer projections have him at a 99 wRC+ and 1.3 WAR in 62 games.

While it is unclear what type of salary it would take to sign Avila, the type of difference he could provide even in a limited role could be huge.

Historically, the Blue Jays have gone cheap with back-up catchers. And why not? Good catchers usually don’t back-up, and trying to attract good free agents to play a limited role is not easy.

However, the Jays do not need a starting caliber back-up catcher. They need a back-up catcher who is not so below replacement level that it costs the team wins.

Getting a better than replacement back-up catcher could conceivably add more value to the team than any reliever they could sign. Where else could a team realistically add a win or two for marginal cost?

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This is a prime opportunity for the Toronto Blue Jays to take this spot seriously and not be hemorrhaging value every time Martin has to miss any action. They have to start taking advantage of it, at least until one of their young catchers in the minors can eventually make this discussion irrelevant.