Tigers call up slugger J.D. Martinez from Toledo

Outfielder J.D. Martinez was hitting .308 with 10 homers and 22 RBIs in 17 games for Toledo until the Tigers purchased his contract Monday morning.


J.D. Martinez wasn’t in the Tigers’ plans at the beginning of the regular season.

He has forced them to change their mind.

The 26-year-old slugger, who wasn’t even on Detroit’s 40-man roster, was hitting .308 with 10 homers and 22 RBIs in 17 games for Toledo until the Tigers purchased his contract Monday morning. To make room for him on the 40-man roster, the Tigers moved Andy Dirks to the 60-day disabled list.

"That was a great Easter present," Martinez said. "I found out after our game yesterday that I was going to the majors. It doesn’t take long to look around this clubhouse and realize that I’m playing for one of the best teams in baseball."

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Martinez was once considered a top prospect in the Astros system, but has struggled at the major-league level. In 252 games over three seasons, he has hit .251 with few walks, a ton of strikeouts and doubles power instead of the home runs that Houston expected.

Because of that, Martinez spent the winter reinventing himself at the plate. The change didn’t pay off quickly enough for the Astros, who released him last month, but the Tigers signed him to a minor-league deal. 

"I’ve had the same swing since I started working with my first hitting coach, and no one had ever said anything about it," Martinez said. "But I just couldn’t hit on a consistent basis in the major leagues. When you get to this level, if you have a hole in your swing, they will find it.

"There were times in Houston where I saw the ball and crushed it, but there were too many holes for me to do it on a consistent basis."

Martinez caught the attention of Tigers’ first-base coach Omar Vizquel when they worked together in the Venezuelan Winter League. Martinez, playing for Los Leones del Caracas, hit .312 with power on a team that had several familiar names from the Tigers organization, including current farmhands Hernan Perez and Eugenio Suarez, as long as former players Alex Gonzalez, Armando Galarraga and Ugueth Urbina.

He was able to keep that level of production with Toledo, so the solutions might be real, but he still has to find playing time with the Tigers. As a slow, right-handed corner outfielder, there is no obvious place for him in the lineup — both Torii Hunter and Rajai Davis are righties and better fits for Brad Ausmus’s up-tempo offensive style.

I’m confident that this new swing is going to help. But I’ve got to prove it here.

J.D. Martinez

"He’s going to have to hit right-handed pitching up here, because that’s when we’re likely to give Torii and Rajai a day off," Ausmus said. "He also gives us a power threat off the bench, which we don’t have."

Martinez does not have great range in the outfield — he has played more left field than right in the majors — but he does have an above-average throwing arm. Defensive metrics show that, while he would be slightly below-average in left, he wouldn’t be a major liability.

At 26, an age where many players are still improving, it seems to be a smart gamble to find out if his performance at Toledo represents a step forward in his career, or just a fluke of small sample size. 

"I’m confident that this new swing is going to help," he said. "But I’ve got to prove it here."

PUTKONEN TO DL: Martinez got a spot on the 25-man roster after reliever Luke Putkonen was placed on the 15-day disabled list with right elbow inflammation. Putkonen has only pitched twice this season, compiling a 27.00 ERA in 2 2/3 innings. 

"I only found out about this in the last few days, but apparently it has been bothering him off and on since spring training," Ausmus said. "It doesn’t bother him on every pitch, but it hasn’t cleared up when he’s gone several days without pitching, so we want to get it fixed."

Ausmus said that head trainer Kevin Rand doesn’t believe that it is a long-term problem, but the Tigers aren’t sure that Putkonen will be back after the minimum 15 days.