Five Cuts: What V-Mart's injury means to Tigers, rest of AL Central
Five reactions to Tuesday's news that Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez is likely to miss the 2012 season after tearing the ACL in his left knee during offseason workouts:
There is no simple replacement for a hitter that batted .330 with a .380 on-base percentage, 12 home runs and 103 RBIs last season. Among qualifiers, the average ranked fourth in the American League and the OBP ranked ninth. His .850 OPS ranked 16th, just behind Dustin Pedroia, Michael Young and Evan Longoria and just ahead of Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis and Ian Kinsler.
The switch-hitting Martinez was also vital to Detroit's lineup last season, primarily as the No. 5 hitter, a slot that doubles as Miguel Cabrera's personal protection. Without a credible hitter behind him, Cabrera -- the power-hitting perennial MVP candidate -- won't see many good pitches to hit. As it was, he walked a career-high 108 times last year, including 22 times intentionally, and both of those numbers are sure to rise without Martinez. Now, the Tigers will either be counting on last year's No. 6 hitter, catcher Alex Avila, to move up a spot and protect Cabrera, or more likely, go out and find a replacement (more on this below).
One safety net the team already had in place is veteran catcher Gerald Laird. The Tigers reacquired their former starter this offseason to serve as Avila's primary backup, freeing Martinez from the bulk of his behind-the-plate responsibilities and focus just on hitting. Laird isn't much of a hitter but is a very good defensive option at catcher.
Suddenly pursuing a mega-free agent such as Prince Fielder now because of a one-season injury to Martinez would be akin to the adage of joining the Marines and going through boot camp just because you want to lose 10 pounds.
"Most likely, I would say it's short term," Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "But I don't know that for sure. Depends on what position somebody plays and who they are."
That said, Dombrowski did nothing to dissuade the notion that the club would seek a solution from outside the organization.
"We're open to it, by all means," Dombrowski said on a conference call. "We are in a spot where we could maneuver from within, however, we are open-minded to different alternatives -- to hitters that are free agents and [available] by trades."
Dombrowski noted that several Tigers -- Ryan Raburn, Don Kelly and Ramon Santiago, to name three -- are versatile in terms of the positions they play, so the club could construct a lineup in which offense-first players such as Brennan Boesch and Delmon Young get regular time as the DH, but more likely the club will seek an outside solution.
The inventory of available quality players on the free-agent market is unusually high for Jan. 17; Dombrowski said he "received numerous phone calls from agents in the last hour." No doubt Scott Boras was one of those agents as he represents two hitters that would seem to make a lot of sense for the Tigers: Carlos Peña and Johnny Damon. Peña, in particular, has real power and a good ability to get on base, averaging 34 home runs and a .366 OBP over the past five seasons. Peña would also be a defensive upgrade over Cabrera at first base.
Also, Rays breakout first baseman Casey Kotchman had near identical numbers to V-Mart last year: .306 average, .378 OBP and 10 home runs, only notably lagging behind Martinez in doubles (40 to 24) and thus slugging (. 472 to .422), though he has far less of a track record. Kotchman could be more one-year wonder than big-hitting DH, but at least he too, like Peña, is a better defender than Cabrera.
It's only ajar, but the door of opportunity has cracked open for the rest of the division. The Tigers ran away with the Central in the second half of last season, eventually winning the crown by 15 games, but losing significant middle-of-the-order production could downgrade Detroit, stripping the modifier "prohibitive" out from in front of their title of "favorites." How the Tigers address this hole will, of course, make a big difference.
Elsewhere, the Twins (if Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are healthy) and especially the Indians would seem to reside on the next tier of contention, and one has to wonder if they'll smell blood in the water and react aggressively. The Indians could also stand to improve at first base, so if they make a bold play to beat the Tigers to Peña or Kotchman, perhaps they'll inch a little closer to the top of the division.
Dombrowski was quick to point to recent history to explain that Detroit's confidence in the season hasn't waned, referring to last year's Cardinals, who lost co-ace Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery in spring training and still won the World Series. Given the circumstances of supply and demand -- that it's easier to replace a DH in the offseason than a front-of-the-rotation starter during spring training -- the Tigers should take even less of a hit to their postseason prospects.
Martinez, who is 33 and has three years and $38 million remaining on his contract, will receive a second opinion from renowned knee surgeon Dr. Richard Steadman, but the club isn't holding onto much hope that he'll avoid knee surgery. "Not much at this point," Dombrowski said.
There is a small chance he could return in time to rejoin the Tigers at the end of the season, but the club declined to speculate on that until surgery is completed. Even if his knee is healthy, it could be difficult to get enough rehab at bats against live pitching in order to be productive against major league pitching. Dombrowski acknowledged that the possibility exists for him to return "but it's not something you count on."
Martinez's personal prognosis for the future is good; ACL injuries aren't as debilitating as they once were, which is especially true for a player who is primarily a DH these days anyway.
"As you've seen with other players of similar age, they've all recovered and done fairly well," Tigers head trainer Kevin Rand said.