Short-Term Tigers Re-Sign Victor Martinez

Every organization wants to be perceived as honest, but not each one can be taken at its word. It was refreshing to hear the Phillies acknowledge not too long ago that they won’t be contending over the next few years. As obvious a point as it was to make, it was important to hear the Phillies be truthful about their situation. As for the Tigers, it’s no secret what they’ve been doing. They’ll come right out and say it: they’ve been trying to win right away, in large part for the sake of Mike Ilitch. The Tigers haven’t acted like they’ve had the luxury of time, and Wednesday they made another big win-now move, keeping Victor Martinez at a four-year guarantee worth $68 million. Per usual, there are questions about the back. Per usual, that’s not the priority.

It’s a fairly simple move to explain, if you buy into the greater organizational pattern. The Tigers are set up to be competitive, and they could’ve used a bat, so they kept one of their best, at a substantial price. One of the things that was so perplexing about the Doug Fister trade was that it made the Tigers immediately worse. That broke from the trend, and caused some to wonder if the team might be slowly trying to plan more for the future. Martinez is about 2015. Martinez is about winning before the future even has a chance to happen. What does Mike Ilitch care about the years down the road?

A team needs to be able to understand where it is. The Tigers have been built to win soon. The Tigers have not been built to win eventually. Acting on that, with the window being already open, the Tigers boosted their immediate odds, and now we can glance at where they are, and at what Martinez is. Going over the Steamer team WAR projections, the Tigers are now fourth in the American League, with Martinez re-signed. More likely, they’re fifth, assuming Rusney Castillo isn’t actually going to be replacement-level. The more general point is that the Tigers appear competitive, and without Martinez, they projected like the Royals and Indians. This is a move to try to stay on top.

And Martinez, just last year, was arguably the very best hitter in baseball. That’s all he was — he isn’t supposed to do anything else — but that’s a hell of a thing to be. Martinez blended a career-low strikeout rate with a career-high isolated power, and that resulted in a career-high wRC+. Teams might consider him to be extra valuable, given his ability to make contact in a league in which that’s increasingly uncommon. Martinez missed all of 2012, and he got off to a slow start in 2013, but once he found his footing in that season, he was also tremendously productive, so that’s another point of some encouragement.

Now, Dave just wrote about his free-agent landmines, and he had Martinez placed second. The crowd predicted a three-year, $45-million contract. Dave predicted a four-year, $64-million contract. Martinez beat that last one by a million a season. Quote Dave:

Paying big money to Martinez is essentially a bet on his power, but he has 6,000 career plate appearances with an ISO of .168; his 2014 power surge just doesn’t fit with the rest of his career.

Martinez turns 36 in December, and it’s difficult to futz with the numbers such that $68 million looks like a good value. But the Tigers can always hope that one thing might be real: Martinez pulled the ball more than usual last season. He pulled the ball more from the left side, and he pulled the ball more from the right side. According to our numbers, last year, 26% of Martinez’s balls hit fair were pulled line drives or fly balls. His average over the four previous seasons was 18%. And he was pulling the ball with authority. A table of relevant data:

Split Career ISO 2014 ISO Career wRC+ 2014 wRC+
Pull 0.283 0.414 171 241
Center 0.097 0.065 96 103
Opposite 0.130 0.099 106 103

Martinez did his improving to the pull sides. Maybe something about that makes it feel more sustainable. He obviously has outstanding bat control. There are plenty of reasons to believe Martinez is going to be really good again in 2015.

But you remember his age. Could get worse, could get hurt. In 2011, he was worth 2.5 WAR, with really good hitting numbers. David Ortiz hasn’t cleared 4 WAR since 2007. Steamer projects Martinez for 2.4 WAR. If you give him last year’s plate-appearance total, that goes up to 2.8.

So, say Martinez is worth 2.75 WAR next season. Knock off half a win each year, because of the aging. 2.25. 1.75. 1.25. Eight wins in four years worth $68 million? Are they worth $68 million and the loss of what would’ve been a compensation draft pick?

We all understand what the end is likely to look like, but for the short-term, the Tigers like Martinez at $17 million in 2015, with cracks beginning to form on the rest of the roster. Already, the Tigers have $110 million committed for 2016. They have $107 million committed for 2017. They have $81 million committed for 2018. This could very well be their last year with David Price. It looks like they’re losing Max Scherzer. There’s such a sense of urgency here that the Tigers almost have to operate with blinders on, blocking them from thinking about the future. The future has never seemed closer, so the immediate has never felt more important. The Tigers just about need to win in 2015, and that’s the strongest argument for giving such a guarantee to the best hitter available.

In the words of Matt Eddy, last October:

Detroit traded Avisail Garcia to the White Sox in the three-team deal that netted them Jose Iglesias, and no team has mortgaged its future to win now quite like the Tigers.

In the last version of Baseball America’s talent rankings, looking just at the farm systems, the Tigers ranked 28th. They were 27th the year before. The year before that, 23rd, and the year before that, 25th. The Tigers don’t seem to have much impact talent on the way, and on the big-league roster, you’re looking at Nick Castellanos and Jose Iglesias. One can only wonder where the Tigers would be without the J.D. Martinez discovery, but it’s clear that the system is thin, as a consequence of winning and trying to keep winning.

This isn’t the sort of thing that changes overnight. From 2011 to 2013, the Astros moved from 26 to 18 to 9. The Marlins moved from 29 to 28 to 5. The Cardinals moved from 24 to 10 to 1. The Diamondbacks moved from 22 to 4 just between 2011 and 2012. It is possible for systems to get stocked quickly, but oftentimes there has to be a tear-down, or some strokes of luck. You can’t bet on luck, and if the Tigers do eventually elect to tear down, it’s hard to see where some of their big money could be exchanged for prospects, since there’ll be a lot of dead weight.

The natural, kind of obvious conclusion: the Tigers are positioning themselves to resemble the Phillies. The Phillies are in the dreadful part of the cycle after having made the playoffs five years in a row. The Tigers have finished first in their division four years in a row, and they’re good enough to make it five. It sure looks like, within the next few years, the situation in Detroit is going to turn pretty ugly. But they can worry about that when they get there, if they even still have all the same front-office personnel, and besides, before it sucked to be a Phillies fan, it was pretty damn special. Since the Phillies won the World Series, they might say it was worth it. The Tigers put another $68 million toward buying an era a trophy.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago

David Ortiz hasn’t cleared 4 WAR since 2007, but he’s been worth 9 WAR over three years and 13 WAR over four. It’s not actually all that much of a stretch to imagine this contract actually coming out on par in terms of value.

…I don’t think this team is winning a world series without a center fielder or a bullpen that resembles that of a contender, though.

8 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

David Ortiz is also a radical outlier. And he didn’t spend any of his career – let alone most – crouching behind the plate.

Matthew Tobin
8 years ago
Reply to  Arc

While it is difficult to analyze because we don’t have a lot of data on career DHs. The ones that are OK are HoFers like Edgar Martinez,Dave Winfield,Paul Moliter , and Frank Thomas. And they all fell off the table aroung age 39 or 40.

Victor Martinez is not close to those players and has more wear and tear from catching I imagine. Only a matter of time before the knees fall off.

James k
8 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Tobin

Frank Thomas never fell off the table. He played incredibly in Oakland only to be benched in Toronto to avoid accruing the plate appearances for a vesting player option. Very insulting end for an incredible player.

Bobby Ayala
8 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Tobin

Edgar also played his whole career with notoriously bad knees, fwiw.

8 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Tobin

Nitpicking, but Martinez isn’t in the HOF