How much of a difference might Victor Martinez have made for Detroit in the World Series? That's a question the Tigers won't have to ask next year.
Martinez missed all of the 2012 season after tearing the ACL in his left knee during offseason workouts. The Tigers held out the possibility that Martinez might be able to recover in time to join the team by September. But the knee was discovered to be far more damaged than originally believed. Martinez required microfracture surgery before his ACL could be repaired.
But the Tigers expect to have their designated hitter back next year. That was one of the reasons the team decided not to bring back Delmon Young for 2013 shortly after the season ended.
In 2011—his first year with Detroit—Martinez hit .330, second-best in the Tigers lineup behind Miguel Cabrera's MLB-leading .344 average. His 103 RBI were also second to Cabrera. WIth an .850 OPS, Martinez ranked third on the team.
Losing Martinez's bat from the lineup was a tremendous blow. That led the Tigers—prompted by owner Mike Ilitch—to overcompensate wildly by signing Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million contract.
It's more than likely that Detroit wouldn't have shocked the baseball world by nabbing Fielder if Martinez hadn't suffered his season-ending knee injury. That has to be factored in when asking how the Tigers would have fared in the postseason and World Series with Martinez.
But next season is when the Tigers will truly benefit from losing Martinez for an entire season and the arguable overreaction to that setback. The middle of the Detroit lineup will feature Cabrera (presumably batting third), Fielder and Martinez.
Depending on how general manager Dave Dombrowski and Ilitch address the team's need for at least one corner outfielder, another powerful hitter could join the Tigers' already formidable middle-of-the-order trio. That would add further depth to the lineup and possibly allow manager Jim Leyland to push his top hitters down in the order, perhaps beginning with Cabrera in the No. 4 spot.
Regardless, Martinez will probably bat either fifth or sixth for the Tigers next season. He'll slot in behind Fielder, which should provide him with some needed protection. Fielder tied for the MLB lead in intentional walks last season with 18. (Those who don't believe in lineup protection will point out that Cabrera was intentionally walked 17 times despite Fielder hitting behind him.)
Putting Fielder on first base was often an easy decision for an opposing team with Young hitting behind him. Though he was a postseason force, Young had a mediocre regular season, batting .267 with a .707 OPS, 18 home runs and 71 RBI. Pitching to him, rather than Fielder with his 30 home runs and 108 RBI, presented no dilemma.
Martinez has been remarkably consistent during his 10-year career. Put him down for a .300 average, .850 OPS, 20 homers and 100 RBI. The Tigers will obviously benefit from getting that sort of production back in their lineup.
Detroit will also hope that either catcher Alex Avila or shortstop Jhonny Peralta can rebound from their poor 2012 seasons and bat sixth or seventh behind Martinez.
Though there may be some question as to whether Martinez's production will be at all affected by his knee injury, he will be purely a designated hitter for the Tigers. That decision was made even before he tore his ACL.
Detroit signed Gerald Laird as their backup catcher this past season to relieve the burden on Avila, but also to make sure Martinez didn't have to squat behind the plate again. Martinez only played 26 games at catcher in 2011, but didn't do so after Aug. 4.
Shortly after the season ended, the Tigers told Laird that he was free to shop himself around the league if he wanted a raise and more playing time. He could still return and back up Avila next year. But Dombrowski said the team was comfortable with Triple-A catcher Bryan Holaday being the reserve catcher, if it came to that.
The point is that Martinez is not going to play any catcher next season. That will surely also apply during interleague play, even if it means taking Martinez's bat out of the lineup.
But if the Tigers were to return to the World Series, Leyland would face an interesting quandary. For the games at the National League ballpark, where would Martinez play if he didn't play at catcher? He wouldn't play at first base. He's never played the outfield in his life. Martinez would almost certainly have to sit and be relegated to pinch-hitting.
Leyland might smile at that possibility, however. After all, it would mean the Tigers got back to the World Series. Besides, if the American League wins the All-Star Game, Detroit would have home-field advantage in such a scenario.
That's a problem the Tigers would surely be happy to deal with.
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