May 8, 2014 at 7:42 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers should work to re-sign Victor Martinez, sooner the better

Detroit — No need, immediately, to get this Victor Martinez matter settled. The Tigers have their 35-year-old slugging machine under contract through the end of this season, which means May is not exactly bumping against any renewal deadlines.

But it is possible the Tigers will want a hitter so extraordinary and vital to the middle of their batting order to be theirs for the next couple of seasons and not deal with the complications that could follow this autumn.

Martinez slammed another home run in Thursday’s game, a 6-2 loss to the Astros at Comerica Park. He ripped an 0-and-2 fastball, which is the same count and pitch he blasted for a home run the previous night when he whipped a heater near his shoulders into the left-field seats.

He is hitting .333. He has seven home runs. He is seven months from 36. He can also play first base and can still work as catcher.

Do the Tigers want, even now, to court possibilities Martinez will compete for a batting championship and suddenly be staring at a fat free-agent check following this season?

Do they want to take their chances replacing him with an expensive hired gun ahead of 2015? Would they have enough trust in Nick Castellanos and his development to think of him as the bat they need behind Miguel Cabrera?

Or, do the Tigers bide their time and exercise their percentage shot at retaining Martinez for at least 2015 by making him a free-agent qualifying offer ($14.1 million last season) that is sure to rise this autumn and could easily entice Martinez to stick with Detroit for another year?

The qualifying offer would protect the Tigers in two ways: Martinez could accept and the Tigers would have a year to enjoy Martinez with the same qualifying-offer rights following the 2015 season. Or, if he were to sign elsewhere after the Tigers had offered heavy cash for 2015, Detroit would get a first-round pick in next year’s draft.

Smarts and skill

It is, in one respect, a simple issue. Wait and see what happens. No reason to hurry. A man 35 might begin swinging more in step with his age once summer arrives and bodies begin to wear down.

But when you attempt to measure the immeasurable value he brings in assorted ways to the Tigers, you can make a case for the Tigers and Martinez’s agent firm, Octagon, at least talking about a mid-season extension.

Martinez’s grand gift is as a switch-hitter who keeps pitchers honest when they deal with the man in front of him, Miguel Cabrera. You don’t walk Cabrera with any sense of peace when Martinez is next in line.

He is a Renaissance artist of a batter who can beat teams with his unique blend of smarts and skill, which accounts for his .304 career batting average. He also likes it here.

Of course, so does Max Scherzer, and Scherzer has all but set sail for his upcoming free-agent adventure.

“Definitely,” Martinez said a few minutes after Thursday’s game when asked if he was hoping to stick with the Tigers. “At the same time, I know how it (a team’s business judgment) works, so I understand. But I feel really comfortable here.”

It was conceded to Martinez that the season is young and contracts generally are non-issues as players and teams focus on more basic assignments. There is no confusion there. The Tigers are in first place. Martinez, before his three hits, was seventh in the American League in batting.

Decision looms

But with each day and game bringing him closer to a four-year contract’s expiration, there will be a steady realization, not comforting for the Tigers or for their fan base, that Martinez could soon be a goner.

This is anxiety a team could probably do without even if it has no particular bearing on this season’s games.

“You know what?” said Martinez, who played with the Indians and Red Sox before he arrived in Detroit. “When I was in Cleveland (2002-09) I called that organization home. Now, I’ve been here for 2½ years. I get to know everybody here.”

It was his way, it seemed, of saying that he would very much love to drop anchor in Detroit. But just how that might be accomplished in May was nothing he could assess ahead of business decisions that are probably a few months away.

Unless, of course, the Tigers and Octagon have conversations well ahead of October that make a contract’s expiration moot.

“It’s not on me,” he said, all but leaving this topic to his agents. “My only job is to come here, ready to play baseball.”

He was ready again Thursday: three hits, one of them a home run. He is ready to play baseball every day. Just ask opposing pitchers who know whatever they throw, wherever they locate it, Martinez is a hitting marvel. The man hunched over in his S-shaped crouch, with a bat like a precision tool, is one big reason they don’t like Detroit.

J.D. Martinez congratulates Victor Martinez after his solo home run in the fourth inning. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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