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Kelly: Blue Jays make an eye-popping bet with $82-million deal

A while back, Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos was looking for a new car. He settled on a Honda. He didn't purchase it. Instead, he took out a lease.

I'm not sure exactly what Anthopoulos makes, but it's enough to buy a Honda for every day of the week.

Why the lease?

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We were sitting in the Blue Jays plush executive offices. Anthopoulos leaned back and opened his arms, taking in the scope of the place.

"Because, all this …" he said. "You just never know."

That's the core of Anthopoulos – a son of working-class immigrants, a man who treats other people's money as he would his own and someone who exercises caution in all his dealings.

That's what makes the Russell Martin deal significant. This is Anthopoulos going against his basic nature.

On Monday, Anthopoulos made Martin the premier free agent signing of his tenure. The Toronto-born, Montreal-raised catcher will join the Jays on a five-year, $82-million (U.S.) deal, as first reported by's Peter Gammons.

Five years ago, Anthopoulos described a five-year, $65-million extension for Jose Bautista as "a little bit beyond my limit."

The economics of the game have inflated in the interim, but that was a deal for a guy who was, at the time, the best offensive player in baseball. The newest recruit is nowhere close to that level, but he gets the same consideration.

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Martin is not young – he'll be 32 by opening day. The Jays have many needs, and catcher was low on the list. And he's coming off the best year of his career – always a danger sign.

Martin is a decent offensive upgrade, and a major defensive one, on the team's catching incumbent, Dioner Navarro.

He's talented at every part of the game, but has only one standout skill – pitch framing. If you believe the numbers, Martin is worth between one and three wins a year for his ability to massage umpires. That's what the Jays are buying here.

I first talked to him when he was breaking in with the Dodgers. He had a fascinating SoCal/Canada hybrid personality – cocky, but wearing it with ease.

"I don't want to sound egotistical when I say this, but I don't really have any, like, weaknesses," Martin said at the time.

He was right. What's changed since then is the perception of his intangibles.

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A lot of people outside the game don't go in for such things these days. According to that school of thought, if you can't put a number on it, it doesn't really matter. This is in stark contrast to people inside the game. They still put an awful lot of stock in things that can't be measured.

What Martin has is the knack of winning. His teams have made the playoffs seven of the past nine years.

He is also much loved by colleagues. They call those sorts of players "professionals." (Baseball translation: You can live with the guy for eight months without feeling the daily urge to beat him to death.)

The Jays are lacking in that regard. If the team's unloved ace, R.A. Dickey, is amongst the dominoes that begin to fall, you'll be able to trace that decision back to this one.

Still, it's the size of the deal that gives you pause. The Jays have a self-imposed five-year limit on signings.

In order to get Martin, they've gone over the top and right up to their threshold. It's not a huge bet by baseball standards, but it's eye-popping by Toronto standards.

There are two optimistic ways to look at any sizable free-agent flyer – as value for money, or a spree that can be justified in the short term.

This is a spree. It is difficult to imagine a 36-year-old anyone – and especially a 36-year-old catcher – being worth nearly $20-million a year.

But good stewardship eventually gives way to ownership impatience and a GM's instinct for survival. With this deal, Anthopoulos has finally passed beyond his "reasonable" stage.

Throughout his five years in charge, Anthopoulos has taken a lot of bullets for team owner Rogers Communications Inc. on the subject of spending.

He's done it happily – there is no behind-the-scenes dissent over budgets.

Anthopoulos was allowed to pick his spots – well, one spot – with the trade for Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson. Otherwise, he's run a major-market team with a somewhat less than major-market financial approach.

The challenge plainly appeals to his methodical cast of mind. Some people can't enjoy chess unless they're winning. Anthopoulos just enjoys chess. However, the time for strategic puzzles is over.

Inside the organization, the Jays felt the 2014 season was lost due to injuries and bad luck. There was no postseason despair. They still think they are a favourite to win the American League East. They knew they had to change, but they didn't think they had to change all that much.

The arrival of Russell Martin points to a … let's call it a new sense of urgency.

Anthopoulos and his employers now have a short-term understanding, one that will never be said aloud.

Either this team makes it to the upcoming postseason, or bodies start getting thrown overboard.

On Monday, Anthopoulos put his hand up, signalling that he's willing to be the first if things don't go to plan.

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