Signing Martinez was the right thing to do for the Tigers

His All-Star on-field performance is only one reason the Tigers resigned Victor Martinez to a lucrative free agent deal.

His All-Star on-field performance is only one reason the Tigers resigned Victor Martinez to a lucrative free agent deal.

The Detroit Tigers’ signing of Victor Martinez to a four-year, $68 million deal has been criticized in some quarters. It shouldn’t be. Yes, he’s turning 36. But he’s in great shape, just had the best season of his career, and is a designated hitter. I’d rather have him than David Ortiz.

The deal should be seen as the commitment to excellence that it is. For almost the rest of this decade, Detroit has now insured that it will continue to have the most powerful and productive 1-2 punch in the major leagues.

Miguel Cabrera may have become widely known as the “best hitter on the planet,” but last year, at least, his fellow countryman was better. Showing surprising power, Victor was a prodigious batsman any way you slice it: from the left or right side of the plate, in any count, at home or on the road, with runners in scoring position or not. No matter how you figure it, he was a .300-plus hitter in any spot all season long.

He’s a special presence in the clubhouse too, with an incredible work ethic and great leadership skills—showing up early on game days to practice that sweet swing. He doesn’t strike out as much as Miggy and, like his partner in the middle of the field, can hit to all fields, hit for power, and get on base.

What team can match the Tigers for a 1-2 punch? Probably no one, really, though with Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, the Angels might come close.

And when has the Detroit franchise ever had such a terrifying tandem? Maybe Al Kaline and Norm Cash, at least in 1961, or Kaline and Rocky Colavito, but even their offensive stats don’t match Miggy and VMart. Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg? They didn’t bat back-to-back, and Gehringer wasn’t a power hitter. Ty Cobb and Harry Heilmann were scary but without the seat-reaching power to break games open with one swing of the bat.

No, what Detroit will have in the middle of the lineup for at least the next four years is a unique duo of intimidation and an insoluble everyday problem for opposing pitchers. You can’t pitch around two offensive powerhouses batting back to back.

They can be there day in and day out, too. Martinez can spell Cabrera from time to time at first base and let Miggy get a little rest as a DH. And even in National League parks in interleague games, VMart can occasionally catch or Cabrera can occasionally play third base.

With this durable core locked up, what the Tigers need is to keep working at building around it. Ian Kinsler is fine as the lead-in to the pair, and JD Martinez and Nick Castellanos hopefully will continue to develop as offensive threats behind them. But the Detroit offense has been in recent years a little too one-dimensional.

What would propel than offense to spectacular would be an on-base machine to bat leadoff in front of Kinsler, Miggy, and VMart. If Shin-Soo Choo could be pried away from the Texas Rangers after his disappointing 2013, and if the Tigers were willing to pay his salary in hopes he could return to 2012 form, wouldn’t that be an incredible top of a lineup? What Detroit should give for a .400 OBP addition! If Miggy and Martinez had men on base in front of them on a dependable basis, between the two of them they might threaten to drive in 300 runs a season.
As it stands now, however, there may be a bunch of speed merchants next year preceding them, with the likes of Jose Iglesias, Anthony Gose, and Rajai Davis probably filling the 8-9 and 1 spots in the order in some configuration on most days. That might make for an interesting multi-faceted offense: speed followed by power.

No matter how the rest of the lineup were constituted, however, if I were manager, I’d be very tempted to move VMart to second in the lineup. With his ability to draw walks and hit for a high average while avoiding strikeouts, he’d be a great guy at No. 2, assuming he’d be hitting behind Kinsler or one of the three speedsters. You could hit-and-run with Victor at bat with a lot of confidence he’s going to make contact and thus avoid double plays a lot more than having Miggy batting ahead of him. Also, batting second instead of fourth would mean that over the course of a full season Martinez would get about 35 more plate appearances.

If JD performs anywhere close to his 2013 level, he’d be OK batting clean-up; he certainly has the power to do so. If a speedster batted first instead of Kinsler, Kinsler would be fine as a No. 5 hitter—and so eventually might be Castellanos, if he continues to mature as an offensive threat.

But anyway you line them up, having Miggy and VMart at the core of your lineup gives you enough offense at the core to be able to carry weaker-hitting defensive stalwarts Gose, Iglesias, and Avila at the three most important positions on the field, making the Tigers a much better all-around team.

Keeping Martinez long term makes sense in a multitude of ways. Letting him go would have been a huge mistake.