May 6, 2014 at 8:00 pm

Tony Paul

Tigers Mailbag: Victor Martinez might be poised to stay in Detroit beyond 2014

Victor Martinez wasn't expected to last in Detroit beyond 2014, but that might change. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Detroit — Tigers fans were nervous entering this season. That is, after all, what change will do to you — and boy, did the Tigers have a lot of a change over the winter.

From the manager on down, there were wholesale changes, with not a single area spared. The bullpen looks vastly different. So does the offense. Even the starting rotation has a new face.

Yet, here stand the Tigers, with twice as many wins as losses.

At 18-9, they're tied with the Milwaukee Brewers for the best winning percentage in baseball.

And, in case you haven't noticed, the Tigers are starting to separate themselves from the pack in the American League Central. After Monday's victory, the lead was 4.5 games. With three more games this week against the Astros, followed by series against the Twins (the second-place Twins if you can believe it) and Orioles, the Tigers have a chance to create some significant distance.

That'd be ideal, too, as the schedule soon gets tougher, with series against the Red Sox, Rangers and A's looming by month's end.

Even so, Brad Ausmus' Tigers have a chance to have a larger lead by the end of May than any of the eight Tigers teams Jim Leyland managed. The best they did under Leyland was a four-game cushion in 2009. This is not an indictment on Leyland, of course. He didn't have the diverse roster Ausmus has, players who give the team many ways to win, with speed to go along with some still-present power. These Tigers can score without a hit; Leyland's Tigers often failed to score with four hits in an inning.

Then there's the dynamite rotation, which was great under Leyland but might be even better now, with Rick Porcello taking another giant step in his progression and Drew Smyly showing why general manager Dave Dombrowski was so willing to part with Doug Fister over the offseason.

Even the bullpen's rounding into form, at least in the eighth and ninth innings, where Joe Nathan now is looking as advertised — and Joba Chamberlain is looking way better than advertised. And before too long, two-time All-Star Joel Hanrahan will be on board, too.

Sure, it's still early. There's plenty of time for Tigers fans to get nervous again.

But given the quality of this division — where each of the other four teams has some strengths, but also some glaring weaknesses — that nervousness might not return in full force until October.

Now onto this week's Tigers Mailbag.

Question: How much do you think it will take to re-sign Victor Martinez? — Curtis

Answer: Interesting question.

Let's first take a moment to recognize just how brilliant the Martinez era has been in Detroit.

Back in the winter before the 2011 season, the Tigers went searching for a bat — preferably one with power from the left side of the plate. There were two obvious choices: Adam Dunn and Martinez. It wasn't an easy decision. In fact, it's believed there even was a split in the Tigers front office.

But they eventually settled on Martinez, leaving the White Sox to sign Dunn — both getting similarly priced four-year deals. And what a home run that move turned out to be from the Tigers’ perspective.

Even though Martinez missed one full season, he's still provided more value than Dunn has for the White Sox. In Dunn's first three years in Chicago, he's had two duds and a good season. In Martinez's first three years in Detroit, he's had two good seasons and a missed year. Both are off to fantastic starts in 2014. But if you check out the ever-popular WAR — that's wins above replacement — Dunn since 2011 checks in at negative-1.1, while Martinez has clocked a plus-5.6.

I acknowledge, WAR isn't an exact science. It's even tougher to evaluate for guys who don't play defense. Still, that's an awfully wide gap between Dunn and Martinez.

Dunn is for sure heading out of Chicago after this season. For some time, it was assumed Martinez would soon be done in Detroit, too. Then came the Prince Fielder trade last November. That trade had a laundry list of ripple effects, but one rarely was talked about: It opened the door, even slightly, for a Martinez return beyond 2014.

If Fielder had stayed, the Tigers in good conscience couldn't entertain the idea of bringing back Martinez after this year, because Fielder was heading for designated hitter duty in the not-so-distant future. There'd be no room for Martinez, who, while serviceable at first base and even catcher in a pinch, is a full-time DH.

That's not an obstacle anymore, and Martinez is off to a blazing start, with a .323/.381/.535 slash line, for a ridiculously impressive .916 OPS. His at-bats are some of the best in baseball, a true work of art. He spoils pitcher's pitch after pitcher's pitch before taking advantage of something he can handle, like in the eighth inning Monday night, when he belted a home run for a huge insurance run.

Martinez may be 35, but he's hardly slowing down. Still, because of his age, he might not get another four-year contract like the Tigers gave him, but he could exceed the $12.5 million annual salary. So don't be surprised if he gets something in the neighborhood of three years and $42 million — and don't be surprised if it's the Tigers ponying up, especially if they don't re-sign Max Scherzer.

Question: When will Phil Coke be gone? Or is he going to be lingering like Ryan Raburn? — Stiller

Answer: Best way to answer this — I have no clue.

It's tough to fathom Coke can remain on the 25-man roster when Ausmus doesn't appear all that comfortable pitching him, let alone when the Tigers' lead is fewer than seven runs. Yet, Coke still remains on the 25-man roster.

The company line remains the same: The Tigers still think Coke, 31, still has quality stuff — including a mid-90s fastball and a big, bending break ball — and has a chance to find that magic that made him a breakout star in the 2012 postseason.

Here's what Dombrowski told me via e-mail Tuesday afternoon: "Phil has a good arm and needs to command his pitches better. We think he has the ability to pitch better."

Ability and reality are two very different things, however.

It's one thing when right-handed hitters tee off on Coke. They've done that for years. But when a lefty specialist no longer can consistently get out left-handed hitters — lefties have teed off him this year to the tune of a 1.084 OPS — then what good is he to a team with not just playoff aspirations, but World Series aspirations?

Why's he still on the team? Well, let's shoot this down: It's not about money. Yes, the Tigers picked up the full $1.9 million contract for 2014, but that's not a number that makes big-league ballclubs sweat. The Tigers, after all, ate more than $1 million on Alex Gonzalez, who got a five-second tryout.

I think it comes down to this: The Tigers are one of the most loyal organizations in professional sports — this is a team that last year gave Jeremy Bonderman another look (in 2013!), and this year is giving another chance to Nate Robertson (in 2014!) — and they have a rather comfortable lead in the division. Plus, their starting pitchers are routinely going deep into games, and they can get by with Coke as a project — for now. That's why Coke survived the Robbie Ray callup; Jose Ortega got sent down.

But how many more he can survive is the question. In four weeks or so, Hanrahan will be joining the Tigers. Eventually, prospect Corey Knebel is going to get a callup, too. Neither are left-handed, but the Tigers aren't committed to going with two lefty relievers — not when they figure their best bet to get outs is going with six quality right-handers, and one lefty in Ian Krol.

Coke's time could be short — and probably should be short.

Then again, most are surprised it hasn't been shorter.

Question: Is it ludicrous to say that Rajai Davis has been the Tigers offense MVP so far this season? — Michael Hern

Answer: It'd be ludicrous not to include him in the discussion.

Think about it. The Tigers this offseason gave Davis a two-year, $10 million contract, good for — according to my math — $5 million per season.

I challenge you to find me a free-agent signing this winter who, dollar for dollar, has been a better value than Davis, a 33-year-old journeyman outfielder who's given the Tigers everything they asked for and much, much more.

What you're seeing is a guy who was presented with an excellent opportunity and ran with it. When Andy Dirks went down this spring with back surgery, Davis, by nothing more than default, become the everyday left fielder, which was stomach-churning for Tigers fans (and brass) who have been told over and over about Davis' woes against right-handed pitching.

It may be an issue eventually, but not yet.

Davis, bouncing between the leadoff spot and ninth spot depending on the opposing pitcher, has posted an unbelievable slash line of .337/.389/.442. Against right-handers, he's hitting .349 with a .406 on-base percentage. History suggests that can't possibly continue, but what will are the stolen bases. He already has 11, in 13 chances; last year, 11 would've led the Tigers for the entire season.

His defense, also believed to be a deficiency, hasn't been nearly as bad as expected. He's made a couple nice diving plays, and even showed a good arm in nailing a runner at second base last week.

Davis has performed so well, few fans are asking when Dirks is set to return. Fewer, yet, will be asking if Dirks will be the everyday left fielder again. Barring injury to Davis, he won't be, at least not at the start. The job was Dirks' to start the year, and was to be waiting for him when he returned from rehab.

Now, Dirks will have to earn it, or Davis will have to fall off, and dramatically.

Even with a slight falloff, Davis might end up being worth every penny, and then some.

Question: Is J.D. Martinez a keeper or will he give way to a left-handed hitter? — labcbaker

Answer: Good question.

The Tigers like Martinez, a lot — so much so that they tried to trade for him this offseason, only for the Astros to say no. Then the Astros, unbelievably, dumped him just before Opening Day, allowing the already-interested Tigers to pick him up for free.

Then Martinez, 26, absolutely tore it up at Toledo, including a monster display that saw him hit four home runs in a doubleheader. That quickly earned him a promotion to the big leagues.

And he's done plenty to impress in Detroit, too, showing off that extra-base pop, even if he is still looking for his first home run.

The problem: He bats right-handed, so there's not really a true platoon option — not when all three Tigers everyday outfielders, Davis, Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter, also bat right-handed. So Ausmus has to pick his spots in starting Martinez, who was to get the nod Tuesday night against his former team.

Truth be told, the Tigers lack left-handed pop. It's the main reason they're so interested in shortstop Stephen Drew, who remains a possibility to sign next month — when he longer is tied to prime draft-pick compensation. The Tigers do have the switch-hitting Martinez and the resurgent Alex Avila, but that's about it. They could use more, and Dirks' return in the next several weeks could help on that front. If not, the Tigers might have to consider a trade.

Either way, Martinez's job could be in jeopardy, unless the Tigers eventually tire of Don Kelly, but that's not overly likely, considering Kelly can play everywhere on the diamond.

Martinez can make it an easier decision for Tigers brass by hitting when his number's called. It's just that his number's not figured to be called that often, not while Davis, Jackson and Hunter are hitting like this.

Question: How high do you think the Tigers are willing to go in years and salary in their offer to Max Scherzer this winter? — Garrett Elliott

Answer: I suspect they'll go higher than the six-year, $144 million offer they made this spring — an offer, by the way, the Tigers knew he would turn down, even if they insist otherwise.

They can go higher, and much higher. Remember, television revenue is set to skyrocket, and soon.

I'm just not sure how much higher they will go.

My best guess: $179,999,9999 — or one dollar less than they gave the ace of their staff, Justin Verlander, when he re-upped in the spring of 2013. And it's doubtful even that would get it done, not when the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers appear to be poised to make their best bid.

Have a question about the Tigers? E-mail Tony Paul at tpaul@detroitnews.com or ask him on Twitter at tonypaul1984, and your question might just end up in Tuesday’s Tigers Mailbag.