LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) The Detroit Tigers had mild expectations for J.D. Martinez when they called him up from the minors early last season.
''We knew he had power,'' manager Brad Ausmus said. ''We were initially hoping he could just be a power threat off the bench.''
Martinez quickly became a lot more. After being signed by Detroit to a minor league deal in March, he eventually earned a spot on the big league roster and hit .315 with 23 home runs and 76 RBIs. That production made all the difference in the world for the Tigers, who won the AL Central by one game, and now Martinez is penciled in as a key player in the middle of Detroit's lineup.
Martinez spent his first three seasons with Houston and flashed decent power, hitting 24 home runs from 2011-13, but his overall offensive profile was pretty ordinary, especially for a corner outfielder. The Astros released him last March, and after the Tigers picked him up, he began the year at Triple-A Toledo.
That stint in the minors didn't last long. After batting .308 with 10 home runs in only 17 games for the Mud Hens, Martinez was called up by the Tigers, where he hit .346 with 13 home runs in 55 games before the All-Star break. It was around mid-June, when Torii Hunter had to deal with a hamstring problem that Ausmus began to realize what Martinez might be capable of.
''Torii got hurt,'' Ausmus said. ''J.D. plays for basically a week straight, and forces me to put him in the lineup on a regular basis.''
Martinez attributes his breakout to a swing overhaul before last season. He studied successful hitters like Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout and noticed differences between their bat path and his.
''They're in the zone longer,'' he said. ''That's all I just wanted to do was keep my bat in the zone longer.''
Martinez changed a number of aspects of his swing, including his leg kick and the placement of his hands. Now 27, he may have altered the course of his career.
Not only did Martinez put up impressive numbers last season, but several of his biggest hits came in the late innings, leaving quite an impression on Detroit fans. Of his 23 homers, 13 were in the seventh inning or later. On Sept. 2 at Cleveland, his three-run homer in the ninth gave the Tigers a 4-2 win. Later that month, he put Detroit ahead by a run with a three-run shot in the ninth at Minnesota, although the Twins rallied to win that game.
Martinez didn't qualify for the batting title, but he finished with a higher average and slugging percentage than Cabrera, his more celebrated teammate. The Tigers are hoping for a repeat performance, or something close to it. Cabrera and Victor Martinez are both recovering from surgery, and their status for opening day is in question. That means Detroit may be relying quite a bit on J.D. Martinez's power early in the season.
''He'd be important even if they are healthy,'' Ausmus said. ''I don't think having (newly acquired outfielder Yoenis) Cespedes hurts as well. It's still two pretty big bats. Worst-case scenario, neither one of those two, Miggy and Victor, are ready, we still have two pretty big bats somewhere in the middle of the order.''
Ausmus says opposing pitchers will certainly be more aware of J.D. Martinez's ability, and it'll be up to the Detroit outfielder to counteract any adjustments they make - but Martinez says he's already faced a number of different approaches. Last season, at least, nobody seemed to come up with a consistent way to get him out.
''They made adjustments last year. They're not just sitting there last year and just grooving me the same pitches,'' Martinez said. ''I think the adjustments will never change - it's not just one year to the next. They're changing every day you're out there, and that's why this game is so difficult.''