October 20th, 2010

On Tigers and Victor Martinez

The Tigers haven’t had the Major League portion of their end-of-season meetings, the part where they go over their potential roster moves for the offseason and flesh out their wish list. That will come next week here in Detroit. And even then, the Tigers fear tampering accusations enough that they won’t say a whole lot on specific players before free agency gets going and players officially hit the open market. Still, it isn’t difficult to look at the roster as it is now and see a fit for Victor Martinez.

Troy Renck of the Denver Post wasn’t reporting that the Tigers would make a “strong push” for Martinez so much as he was tweeting what he has heard. His name had popped up in someone else’s prose as well earlier this month. But in a market where there are few impact bats and the prices for the top ones are expected to go big, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if the Tigers went after Martinez, so long as he’s willing to fit into the openings the Tigers have.

If he is, he would essentially fill two holes with one signing. The Tigers need a run-producing bat in the middle of the lineup, but they also need a right-handed hitting catcher to back up and/or share at-bats with Alex Avila. The switch-hitting Martinez fits both, having batted .300 with an .846 OPS since 2004 while averaging better than 20 home runs and just under 100 RBIs over a healthy season.

The Tigers are a known commodity for Martinez. He knows the AL Central from his years in Cleveland, and he knows Tigers players both from Venezuela and beyond. And assuming the Tigers end up re-signing Jhonny Peralta, Martinez knows at least one Tiger really well.

The big question, possibly the one that makes or breaks any interest, is how attached Martinez is to catching every day. If it’s a deal-breaker for him, then it could be interesting, not just catching him now at age 32 but down the road in a long-term deal. While Martinez had solid numbers this year catching 110 games in Boston, his reputation as a catcher isn’t all that strong. Tigers pitchers have had the benefit of standout defensive catchers for several years now, and as this past season showed, they’re not used to having to hold runners to give their catcher a chance to throw out a would-be basestealer.

Catching transitions haven’t gone well recently in Detroit. Ivan Rodriguez’s situation turned ugly two years ago once the Tigers talked about splitting starts with Brandon Inge, who didn’t really want to catch anymore in the first place but wanted to play. Simply getting Pudge to take days off was a chore for Alan Trammell and Jim Leyland. Gerald Laird was kind of a forgotten man by season’s end once the Tigers decided to see how Avila would handle everyday duty and were impressed. Dusty Ryan’s late-season audition in 2008 didn’t go well.

The ideal scenario for the Tigers would be to have Martinez catch part-time and DH when he isn’t behind the plate. It gives the Tigers some flexibility next year if Avila struggles, and it fills their DH needs while also leaving some games open there for other guys — maybe Ryan Raburn, maybe Magglio Ordonez if he’s re-signed. But then, with Ordonez coming off ankle surgery, there’s plenty of question how much he can be counted on to play outfield next year. I don’t think the Tigers have the roster flexibility to sign both Martinez and Adam Dunn, more like one or the other. Considering Dunn doesn’t want to be a DH, and reportedly is serious about it (not just a negotiating ploy), it could be a matter of which one is most willing to DH. But can they fit Martinez and Ordonez?

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