With Victor back, victories should follow for Tigers
Detroit's offense should improve with return of top DH Martinez
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Let the record show that the knee injury that cost Victor Martinez his shot at a 2012 season was not a total loss. The benefit of all that extra time at home arrived two weeks ago, in the form of little Barbara Victoria Martinez, the third child of Victor and his wife, Margret.
And though Barbarita, as she'll be called, is only days old, Victor and Margret are already talking about working on No. 4.
"I need to get out of the house," Martinez said with a smile, "or I'm going to end up with a volleyball team."
By the looks of things here in these nascent days of Spring Training camp, Martinez won't be spending nearly as much time at the house in 2013, and that's a good thing for the defending American League champion Detroit Tigers.
Adding Torii Hunter to the No. 2 hole was one thing. But reacquiring Martinez's plate presence and pairing it with middle-of-the-order mashers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder is arguably as big an addition as any in the AL Central this season.
"It changes the dynamic of our lineup a lot," Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "You put three guys in the lineup that can drive in 100 runs. One from the right-hand side, one from the left-hand side, one from both sides. All of a sudden, we've got a lot of guys who can pick up the pieces. It strengthens us significantly."
Fielder, of course, wouldn't even be here if not for the devastating knee injury that put Martinez on the shelf. And given that Fielder turned in a .313/.412/.528 slash line and provided protection for the AL MVP and Triple Crown winner, I'd say that signing has worked out wonderfully, to date.
But the Tigers, as a unit, saw their level of run production drop last season -- from 787 in '11 to 726 to '12. The latter half of the lineup largely didn't deliver. Specifically, the Tigers' No. 5 hitters (primarily Delmon Young) hit just .252 with a .671 OPS. Only the Royals (.661) got less production from that spot.
We don't know what to expect from a 34-year-old former catcher coming off multiple knee surgeries. But it seems reasonably safe to assume Martinez can do better than that.
"I'm not projecting he'll hit .330 again," said Dombrowski, "because he's at a point in his career where you never know. You can be in the prime of your career and not hit .330. But he looks good and, from what they tell me, the ball is jumping off his bat."
Martinez was practically jumping around the room Tuesday morning, as the Tigers prepared to hit the field for their first official workouts of the spring.
"I feel like I'm getting to the big leagues for the first time," he said. "I was having a tough time sleeping last night, I was so excited."
This is a distinct study in contrasts from the Martinez seen outside that same clubhouse one year ago. Walking with crutches, with sunglasses hiding his sad eyes, Martinez had come to camp only out of obligation to his son, Victor Jose, who loves being around the game. In the 2012 season that followed, Martinez made just two trips to Detroit -- none during the playoffs -- because the pain of being unable to participate was too much to bear.
"I couldn't go to the ballpark," he said, "because I would start doing stupid things, grabbing a bat and start taking swings when I wasn't supposed to. I said, 'You know what? You better stay away, because this isn't good.'"
As the Tigers ascended to the World Series, the televisions in Martinez's Orlando home were tuned elsewhere. He said he'd watch an inning here or there and then shut off the screen.
Maybe it seems strange that a guy so thoroughly regarded as one of the best teammates in the game today would go out of his way to distance himself from the action. But the Tigers understood.
"One thing I learned many years ago -- and I never understood this when I was not in the game -- is that some injured players that can't play, it's very painful for them to be around the team," Dombrowski said. "They want to push it too much, and it's really not healthy for them to be around."
Martinez is healthy now. He completed his rehabilitation program last week and has been given 100 percent clearance for spring activity. The Tigers, though, will still exercise caution with regard to his catching, and they'll monitor his at-bats in a Grapefruit League season extended by the World Baseball Classic.
"If there are days where he gets a little sore, we may have to back off," manager Jim Leyland said. "So we'll just play that by ear."
Martinez is slotted in as the Tigers' designated hitter. But with 10 road Interleague games on the regular season schedule, Leyland is not ruling out the possibility of Martinez getting back behind the plate on a limited basis.
"You know when Interleague play comes up, Victor Martinez has something in the back of his mind," Leyland said. "My first baseman is Prince Fielder, my third baseman is Miguel Cabrera and, when we play Interleague play, we'll see how things are going with Victor."
No matter the particulars of his position, Martinez is an high=impact piece at the plate and off the field. His personality is infectious, and his will to win is second to none.
Of course, Leyland is more caught up in his more tangible qualities.
"He's a great guy, he's a great teammate," Leyland said. "I could go into all those adjectives. But what I like most about Victor is the 112 RBIs and hitting .300 and getting big hit after big hit. I'm not going to be phony about it. That's why I love Victor."
Leyland is going to love writing down this lineup on a daily basis: 1. Austin Jackson, 2. Hunter, 3. Cabrera, 4. Fielder, 5. Martinez. That's as good a top five as you'll find in the game today, and it could take a Tigers team that was actually middle of the road, in terms of run production last year, back into the ranks of the elite.
"We were talented enough to overcome [Martinez's] absence last year," catcher Alex Avila said. "But whether you're a good team or a bad team, when you take a guy out of the lineup with Victor's ability to hit, to drive in runs, to work a pitcher, you're taking out a big piece there. The fact that we have him back, plus Prince and the rest of the guys in our lineup, we're going to be pretty tough."