Russell Martin has been a fine Major Leaguer for a long time, but the 2018 version of Russell Martin is not, by the numbers, the sort of player that a team absolutely needs to squeeze into the lineup unless things have gone terribly wrong. This isn’t yet true for the middling Toronto Blue Jays, who are currently treading water at 25-29 in the league’s most competitive division.
It’s even less fun than it sounds. Josh Donaldson’s case of dead arm and recurring calf issues have slowed him so far, and the latter sidelined him from Monday’s game. (It doesn’t seem too serious—but if it is...Young Vlad, hello.) The disabled list is otherwise crowded: shortstops Aledmys Diaz and Troy Tulowitzki, outfielders Randal Grichuk and Steve Pearce, and de facto ace Marcus Stroman. It’s at times like this when more opportunities might open up for your .161-hitting veteran catcher.
Martin has been shuffled around more than usual this season, getting some reps at third base, shortstop, and on Monday, his first career start in left field. There are only a few positions left to traverse—pitcher, first base, and centerfield. Martin is probably just a seventh-inning-of-a-blowout away from taking the mound, but it’s extremely hard to imagine Martin zipping around center unless every rostered outfielder is injured; first base, which is usually one of the more natural slots in the lineup for an aging catcher, and it’s honestly kind of weird that he’s never spent an inning there in 13 big league seasons. Anything is possible, though, and manager John Gibbons mostly seems to agree.
It should be noted that positional versatility isn’t something new for Martin, who’s started games at third dating back to his 2008 season with the Dodgers. But shuffling him around to this degree is kind of unprecedented given that he’s been such an offensive liability this season. Slotting him into left over a sturdier option like Curtis Granderson, simply based on the premise of splits against left-handed pitching—Martin’s hitting a paltry .179 against lefties, to Granderson’s .167 in just 12 at-bats—feels weird because it is in fact pretty weird.
How’s it gone so far? The metrics suggest Martin hasn’t been much of a liability yet on defense—his only position with negative defensive runs saved is third (-1) through a tiny sample size—but there are clear and obvious limitations in range that Martin presents over, say, starting Granderson against lefties or sliding Yangervis Solarte over to shortstop.
Of the few plays available online, this backhanded grounder from Phillies catcher Jorge Alfaro serves as a decent enough showcase of Martin’s sort of graceless capability. It’s a fine play, and one of the rare chances he’s had to move much while out in the field, but it should also send a shiver down the spine of any Blue Jays fan that dares to imagine Martin diving for a sharp grounder up the middle. He’s one of those agile-for-his-size guys, but maybe too agile for his own good. Anyway, I’m in favor of this continued experiment.
Surely the Blue Jays would rather be doing something/anything else, and will go back to that when they’re healthy enough to do it. But from Martin’s perspective, it’s at least a shot at overtime—a gambit that might extend the career of a guy who otherwise wouldn’t have too many options once his contract’s up after the 2019 offseason. Both Martin and the Blue Jays are extending him to the very limits of his capacities at the moment, but despite the lack of catcher-to-shortstop success stories in baseball history, he might wind up extending his career as a result.