Tigers hoping familiar names can keep run going

BY foxsports • November 16, 2014

DETROIT (AP) It's not often a general manager has to defend bringing back the runner-up in the MVP race, but Detroit's Dave Dombrowski faced an obvious question after signing Victor Martinez to another four-year deal.

Even though Martinez had perhaps his best season in 2014 at age 35, it's fair to wonder how he'll hold up as he approaches the end of his career.

''I think you take a risk any time you sign a player to a long-term contract,'' Dombrowski said. ''In this situation I think you're talking about a very unusual hitter.''

The Tigers signed Martinez to a $68 million, four-year contract that said plenty about their commitment to keeping the AL Central champions largely intact.

The deal was similar to so many others on Detroit's ledger: It gives the Tigers a chance to contend for the World Series in the immediate future while potentially hamstringing them down the road.

With four straight division titles to their credit - but no World Series championship since 1984 - the boldness is understandable.

Whether they're all-in or doubling down, the Tigers may lead the majors in gambling metaphors.

It was fitting that Mike Ilitch, Detroit's 85-year-old owner, made an appearance at Friday's news conference with Martinez and Dombrowski.

Ilitch's willingness to spend in pursuit of a championship has turned Detroit into the division's most imposing franchise of late, but there were some ominous signs this year, when the Tigers finished only one game ahead of Kansas City and lost in the playoffs to Baltimore - the first time since 2010 Detroit did not make the AL Championship Series.

''Let the chips fall where they may,'' Ilitch said. ''That's how I feel now.''

The Tigers signed Martinez to a $50 million, four-year deal before the 2011 season, and he proved an outstanding addition even though he missed all of 2012 with a knee injury. But lately, Detroit has had to spend big just to keep its stars in town.

Justin Verlander's contract lasts through at least 2019, and Miguel Cabrera's extends through at least 2023. Martinez's deal seems tame by comparison, but he's signed through 2018, when he'll be 39. Max Scherzer is a free agent now, and it's not clear whether the Tigers will be able to bring him back.

Martinez is a designated hitter, and it's certainly possible for a DH to remain productive deep into his 30s. Brad Ausmus, who took over as Detroit's manager before last season, said there were a few things about Martinez that he wasn't aware of until he had a chance to be around him more often.

''I didn't realize his intensity and his work ethic were so strong,'' Ausmus said in a phone interview. ''I didn't know how much pride he took in preparing.''

Martinez hit .335 with 32 home runs and 103 RBIs, and he finished second to Mike Trout in the MVP vote. What makes him unusual, especially in this era, is that he struck out only 42 times. In fact, he's never fanned more than 78 times in a season.

Martinez's most jaw-dropping stat of 2014 may have been his .928 OPS with two strikes on him. Nobody else in baseball even reached .800.

''I've never seen a hitter with the laser focus that Victor has,'' Ausmus said.

The Tigers are trying to be realistic about Martinez, but they probably can't afford too much of a drop. It was his bat that helped Detroit hold on in the division after Cabrera's offensive production slipped a bit from its stratospheric level of 2010-13.

So Martinez returns. His consistent production would have been difficult to replace, and Detroit has little choice but to hope he can keep it up.

''I don't know if he's going to hit 32 home runs,'' Dombrowski said. ''But I have a lot of confidence he'll drive in 100 runs. He's done that many times. He's one of the best hitters in the game and I think he'll continue to do that.''