Russ Martin off to L.A.

The Expositor (Brantford) - - SPORTS - STEVE BUFFERY

No doubt Rus­sell Martin is thrilled to be head­ing to Los An­ge­les, and not just be­cause the weather is nice.

The vet­eran catcher looked like he was suf­fo­cat­ing in Toronto last sea­son and will now be get­ting a fresh start with a team he is very fa­mil­iar with.

The Jays traded Martin on Fri­day to his for­mer club, the L.A. Dodgers, for a cou­ple of in­ter­est­ing prospects, 19-year-old short­stop Ronny Brito and right-handed pitcher An­drew Sopko.

Jays GM Ross Atkins de­serves ku­dos for be­ing able to ship out the ag­ing Martin and his $20 mil­lion con­tract (though the Jays will eat most of that) and get­ting some­thing de­cent in re­turn. Whether Brito and the 24-year-old Sopko even­tu­ally progress into qual­ity Ma­jor League play­ers, no­body knows for sure. But both are in­trigu­ing tal­ents, par­tic­u­larly Brito. He has been de­scribed as hav­ing Gold Glove ta­lent at short.

The Jays did not want Martin around for an­other sea­son, de­spite the fact that he is one of the best at call­ing a game, fram­ing pitches and gen­er­ally lift­ing his pitch­ing staffs. The 2018 sea­son was a night­mare for the Toronto-born catcher. Martin, who turns 36 next month, had a down sea­son of­fen­sively in 2018, hit­ting .194 with eight dou­bles, 10 home runs, and 56 walks over 90 games. Worse than that, he looked like he was ready to snap at times, and did lose his cool near the end of the sea­son when he was asked how he felt about not play­ing in Septem­ber.

Martin gra­ciously agreed to step back in the fi­nal month of the sea­son to al­low ris­ing young stars Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire to han­dle most of the du­ties be­hind the plate, but he clearly wasn’t happy. And you couldn’t blame him. The Mon­treal-raised catcher has been a win­ner through­out his Ma­jor League ca­reer, and not play­ing on a team that was go­ing nowhere fast was ex­tremely frus­trat­ing, though the Jays did go out of their way to ap­pease the vet­eran catcher.

Man­ager John Gib­bons let him play around the in­field dur­ing the sea­son and Martin ac­tu­ally man­aged the fi­nal Blue Jays game of the year. But his of­fen­sive skills have eroded con­sid­er­ably the last cou­ple of sea­sons and the writ­ing was on the wall. His wRC+ over the last three years were 101, 101 and 91 and now the four-time all-star joins the list of other ag­ing stars who have been shipped out of Toronto, in­clud­ing Josh Don­ald­son, J.A. Happ, and Troy Tu­low­itzki. With Rowdy Tellez wait­ing in the wings, It’s likely first base­man Justin Smoak is next.

Through jaded eyes — and most non-Rogers em­ployed jour­nal­ists suf­fer from that af­flic­tion — Brito might not seem like much of a prospect. He was No. 23 on the Dodgers’ prospect list and his bat has been noth­ing to write home about. But the young in­fielder’s de­fence is said to be world class.

He signed for $2 mil­lion out of the Do­mini­can Repub­lic as an in­ter­na­tional free agent by the Dodgers but missed most of 2017 af­ter suf­fer­ing a bro­ken leg while turn­ing a dou­ble play, though he bounced back to have a strong 2018. His of­fen­sive num­bers are trend­ing up­wards and Toronto’s prospects at short are get­ting more ex­cit­ing all the time, with Lour­des Gur­riel Jr., Bo Bichette, Richard Urena and now Brito.

The scout­ing re­port says Brito has soft hands and a quick first step at short and a strong arm. Of­fen­sively, he is a switch hit­ter with “promis­ing” bat speed. Over three mi­nor league sea­sons, Brito the short­stop has com­bined to hit .259 with 32 dou­bles, six triples, 15 home runs, and 104 RBI in 148 games.

All in all, a pretty good pay­out for Atkins.

PITCHER HAS PO­TEN­TIAL

Right-handed pitcher An­drew Sopko may not be as highly touted as Ronny Brito, but clearly the Jays like what he brings to the ta­ble.

The Mis­soula, Mont. na­tive was the Dodgers’ sev­enth-round pick in 2015 out of Gon­zaga.

He’s had a bit of an up-and­down mi­nor-league ca­reer but did show signs of fig­ur­ing things out in 2018.

He started last sea­son with the Ad­vanced-A Ran­cho Cu­ca­monga Quakes where he went 3-4 with a 3.22 ERA in 12 starts. He was pro­moted to the Dou­ble-A Tulsa Drillers in June and posted a 3-1 record with a 3.88 ERA across 14 games to close out the sea­son.

Sopko has posted a ca­reer mi­nor league record of 27-17 while record­ing a 3.61 ERA and 363 strike­outs over 394.1 in­nings.

His fast­ball sits in the low-90’s and touches 95 MPH, though he’s a fly ball hit­ter and that might not play well at the Rogers Cen­tre if he ever makes it to the bigs. His pri­mary off-speed pitch is a mid-70’s, 12-6 curve ball. He also throws a change up.

An­other rea­son why Atkins (and pres­i­dent Mark Shapiro), may like Sopko? He grew up a Cleve­land In­di­ans fan.

GETTY IM­AGES FILES

Rus­sell Martin draws a walk against the New York Yan­kees on July 5, 2017. On Fri­day, the Blue Jays shipped the catcher to the Los An­ge­les Dodgers for 19-year-old short­stop Ronny Brito and right-handed pitcher An­drew Sopko.

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