As the Tigers' likely cleanup hitter, Victor Martinez will be charged with protecting No. 3 hitter Miguel Cabrera. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Detroit — Aware of contracts that will be higher on the priority list, Victor Martinez already sounds uncertain about his future with the Tigers.
In fact, his goodbye might have begun with comments he made at TigerFest.
Martinez, who bounced back so strongly last year after a slow start, answered a question on Saturday about his future.
With his reply, however, it became clear just how unsure he is about staying with the Tigers
Because he’s going into the fourth year of a four-year contract, but also because he turned 35 last month, Martinez was asked to assess his extended future.
Does he still feel he’s in his prime? Does he feel he has many good seasons remaining?
It would be understandable if he feels he is — and that he does, of course. After shedding the rust that resulted from missing all of 2012, Martinez hit .370 for the Tigers from June 29 on last year.
In the last 80 games he started, in other words.
Overall, he hit .301 after wallowing in the low .200’s for nearly three months.
But Martinez didn’t address the question of whether he’s still in his prime.
He spoke instead about his chances of returning with the Tigers.
“I want to stay here, yes,” Martinez said. “But they have a lot going on. They have Scherzer; they have Miggy.”
Max Scherzer can be a free agent after this season, Miguel Cabrera after next.
“But you know what, man?” said Martinez. “I want to take this opportunity to thank the Tigers’ organization and all the fans, because when I had choices of where to go when I was a free agent, I came here because I felt it was the best chance to win.
“I haven’t been wrong about that. We’ve won the division, have gone to the World Series, but we still have some work to do.
“We’ll see what happens. This is a great organization that does what it needs to win.”
It also pays those it needs to in order to win — and as far as that’s concerned, Martinez isn’t a bank breaker. He’ll make $12 million this season.
But that’s a tick down from $13 million last year — and is just the seventh-highest salary on the team.
Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Ian Kinsler, Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez and Torii Hunter all will make more than Martinez this season.
But the question with older players is how long do you stick with them — even when they’re maintaining their productivity.
The Tigers will face the same decision in 2015 with Hunter as with Martinez. Hunter will be 39 going into next season.
Martinez will be 36.
Do the Tigers re-sign one, both or neither?
Both players are valuable for the production, leadership and experience they provide, though they aren’t exactly similar personalities.
Hunter smiles all year, Martinez only a portion of it.
As if there is a tale of two Victors, Martinez’s intensity takes over as the actual season nears — the serenity of the offseason giving way to a competitive scowl.
A pleasure to speak with in January, Martinez can come across during the season as if he doesn’t want to speak with the media until the next January.
Winter Victor pokes fun at Summer Victor, though — acknowledging the difference.
“My wife says to me that I’m different on the field than off,” he said with a laugh. “It’s like I flip the switch and it’s ‘bye to one Victor, and here comes the other Victor.’ ”
Martinez will no doubt hit cleanup for the Tigers this season, replacing Prince Fielder. Batting fourth doesn’t faze him, but he doesn’t hide his feelings that Fielder will be missed.
“I was surprised, yes,” Martinez said of the trade with the Texas Rangers. “We still have a great team, but it’s tough to replace a bat like Prince’s.”
And as much as he tries to prevent it from taking a physical toll, Martinez admits to feeling an urgency to win that “you have to (feel), because you’re not getting any younger.
“You’re getting older and you know that the end of your career might be right in the corner.
“It’s sad,” he said, “but you don’t get the chance to keep trying and trying and trying.”
Whether he’ll get the chance to keep “trying and trying” with the Tigers will be the question.
It already is, it appears.