DETROIT — When Mike Ilitch was asked about the ramifications of another huge financial commitment by his Detroit Tigers, the octogenarian owner looked down for a couple seconds as if checking his wallet.
"Yeah, I’m OK," Ilitch said. "I’ve got some 20s in there."
The Tigers finalized a $68 million, four-year deal with Victor Martinez on Friday, keeping the slugging designated hitter in the middle of their lineup after he finished second in the AL MVP race this year.
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Martinez hit .335 with 32 home runs and 103 RBIs, helping Detroit to its fourth straight AL Central title. Detroit agreed to the lucrative deal less than six weeks before Martinez’s 36th birthday, showing the Tigers still are willing to spend big in pursuit of their first World Series championship since 1984.
"You know how I feel — I’ve felt the same way since I’ve had the club. I love baseball," Ilitch said. "I’m very, very fortunate to be an owner of a major league team. I’m just a happy man."
Martinez shared Ilitch’s upbeat outlook after reaching a deal with Detroit relatively early in the offseason. The switch-hitter has batted over .300 in eight of his last nine seasons, not counting 2012, when he missed the whole season with a knee injury. His bat carried the Tigers at times in 2014.
"I’m just real excited for this great opportunity to get my dream complete, which is winning a World Series," Martinez said. "I have never been on a team like this."
Martinez will make $14 million next season and $18 million annually over the following three years. He can list 10 teams he can’t be traded to without consent, and after the 2015 season he would have the right to block any trade as a 10-year veteran who has been with his current club for five years.
Detroit began its streak of AL Central titles after signing Martinez heading into the 2011 season, and he was instrumental this year. The Tigers clearly had little interest in trying to replace him, and he was happy to return. Team president Dave Dombrowski recounted a conversation he had with Martinez at the ballpark earlier this year.
"He says, `I’ve never done anything like this before, and maybe I’m not supposed to do this because my agents may not like this,’" Dombrowski said. "But he said, `I want you to know how much I want to be a Detroit Tiger. I don’t want to go anywhere after this contract. This is like my home.’ … He came and he grabbed me and had that conversation on his own."
Detroit has spent heavily in recent years to keep stars Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez and now Martinez. The Tigers edged Kansas City by one game this year in the division, then were swept in the AL Division Series by Baltimore.
Right-hander Max Scherzer is a free agent, and it’s not at all clear whether the Tigers will be able to hold onto him, but Detroit has wasted little time trying to take care of other priorities this offseason. The Tigers traded for center fielder Anthony Gose earlier this week, and they have also signed reliever Joel Hanrahan to a minor league deal.
Dombrowski said the Tigers are unlikely to re-sign free agent outfielder Torii Hunter. He also said he’s fairly optimistic about the bullpen, which was a trouble spot this year. Hard-throwing right-hander Bruce Rondon missed this whole season with a torn ligament in his right elbow, but Dombrowski is confident he’ll be back.
"I like our club, but we’re only in the middle of November, so we’re not going to fold up tent at this point," Dombrowski said. "We’ve still got a long way to go so we’ll see what happens. The good part is we filled the void in the middle of our lineup with a left-handed hitter, we got somebody to play center field that can really go get the ball. But we can get better."