Earlier this week, we saw the first major free-agent move of the winter as Michael Cuddyer signed with the Mets. Wednesday brought news of the first major free agent to stay put, as Victor Martinez returned to the Tigers via a four-year, $68 million deal. As with much of what the Tigers do, this is a win-now move whose longer-term ramifications seem to be out of sight, out of mind.
Martinez, who turns 36 on Dec. 23, is coming off a monster season in which he hit .335/.409/.565 with 32 homers, a 168 OPS+ and 5.3 WAR. All but the batting average were career highs. His on-base percentage led the AL, while his other two slash stats and his OPS+ ranked second in the league. Martinez even outhit teammate and reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, who needed a searing September performance just to finish at .313/.371/.524, with 23 homers and a 146 OPS+.
The problem with this deal, which pays out a flat $17 million per year and includes some amount of no-trade protection, is that there's nowhere for Martinez's performance to go but down. At the very least, regression towards his career numbers (.306/.373/.474) is inevitable, and maintaining even that level of performance will be no small task the deeper he goes into his late thirties. That's particularly true for a player who already has negative value on the base paths and in the field, as well as a significant injury history.
In 2014, baserunning and defense trimmed about 1.0 WAR off Martinez's total. He was five runs below average according to the baserunning metrics at Baseball-Reference.com, a figure based not only on his lack of success stealing bases — he went 3-for-5, actually setting a career high with steals — but also in advancing on hits and making outs on the bases. Only teammate Alex Avila (-6 runs) was worse among AL players by that measure. Via B-Ref, this wasn't an aberration; Martinez is 20 runs below average on the bases in his career, including 10 below average in his last four seasons. Meanwhile, he made 115 starts at DH and was four runs below average in his 35 games at first base. By comparison, Cabrera was one run below average there in his return to the position after two years at third, which at least suggests that he doesn’t need to be shunted into a DH-centric role just yet.
A former catcher whose combination of weak arm and strong bat necessitated a transition off the position — he caught 26 games in 2011 but just five since — Martinez has been durable over the past two seasons, playing in a total of 310 games. That said, he missed all of 2012 due to microfracture surgery and repairs of both the medial and lateral meniscus of his left knee. While he hit .321/.381/.487 during the other three seasons of his four-year, $50 million deal, his 2014 value was more than he produced in the previous three seasons combined (5.0). At a cost of roughly $5 million per win, the total production was more or less good enough to break even on the deal, but doing so on a new contract that's a 36 percent raise over the last one (excluding inflation) for ages 36-39 will be a challenge.
So will keeping the team's payroll from crossing the $189 million luxury tax threshold. With Martinez onboard, the Tigers have $121.8 million committed to just eight players for 2015, a figure that doesn't include arbitration-driven raises for David Price and Rick Porcello beyond their 2014 salaries ($14 million and $8.5 million, respectively). Nor does it include a $5.4 million option on Avila, the deadline for which is Nov. 20. Throw those in and the Tigers are well north of $150 million while still needing to replace starter Max Scherzer and right fielder Torii Hunter, both of whom have departed as free agents. Upgrades for center field (where Rajai Davis is the incumbent) and the bullpen (where Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria weren't enough) are also on the shopping list.
A safer bet at shortstop than some combination of Jose Iglesias (who missed the entire season due to shin splints) and Eugenio Suarez would be nice, and they also need to find room for smaller arbitration-driven raises for Al Alburquerque and J.D. Martinez. If they don't pick up Avila's option, he's still arbitration eligible, but given his concussion-related woes of recent years, one way or another they probably need to set aside another million dollars or so for a better backup than Bryan Holaday.
General manager Dave Dombrowski will have to get creative in order to make all of that work, perhaps eating a big chunk of Nathan's remaining $11 million to trade him elsewhere, or possibly flipping Price, whom the Tigers acquired on July 31, for a package of less expensive players. It won’t get any easier in 2016-17, when Price will almost certainly be gone and the team will have over $100 million in commitments to an even smaller (and older) band of players. One way or another, however, the Martinez deal is a reminder that Dombrowski’s mandate is clear: Don’t worry about 2016 or 2018. Win now, while 85-year-old owner Mike Ilitch is still around to enjoy it.