September 3, 2014 at 11:51 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers' pilferage of J.D. Martinez should pay off for a while

J.D. Martinez rounds the bases on his three-run homer Tuesday night in Cleveland. (Jason Miller / Getty Images)

A day after J.D. Martinez might have gotten the biggest hit of their 2014 season, a home run that nearly took out an acre of shrubbery behind Progressive Field’s center-field fence, the Tigers are either dealing with, or delighting in, their usual mounds of issues.

Updating a few of them, we find:

Martinez is the 2014 American League Steal of the Season.

Credit for this heist goes fundamentally to Al Avila, the team’s assistant general manager. Martinez has 19 home runs and a .911 OPS (Miguel Cabrera’s: .869). He has personally beaten the Indians twice with ninth-inning homers. He is batting .311 as he heads into his 100th game of the season. This sample size, hardly small, illustrates not only the degree of thievery the Tigers achieved in signing Martinez in March, it in some small way explains why the Astros are 60-79, why they failed to sign the 2014 draft’s first overall pick, and why this week they fired their manager.

They haven’t had a great year on the field or in the decision-making cubicle.

Martinez is a hitter. As a defender, he can sometimes (last Sunday’s game, for example) look like a hunter chasing a wounded duck in the marsh. But without his bat, a weapon Avila knew about when Martinez was growing up in Avila’s neighborhood in Miami, the Tigers would likely be in grave peril of missing 2014’s postseason.

It should also be noted Martinez turned 27 a couple of weeks ago and can’t become a free agent for three more years. This was good scouting by Avila and the Tigers and an equally deft job in closing a deal that secured an indispensable bat for the giveaway price of $483,000 in 2014 salary.

Alex Avila’s beatings are becoming a community concern.

It was chilling Tuesday night to watch Tigers trainer Kevin Rand, moving an index finger, right-to-left, left-to-right, as he tried to gauge whether Avila had been concussed by yet another bullet of a foul ball to Avila’s mask and head.

Doctors are experts on these matters, not fans, or commentators. But if you have personally witnessed repeated blows to the head in any sport, whether in boxing, or in a football game, you have a natural, intuitive fear for what could be happening to Avila as this ceaseless, inexplicably extreme pounding continues.

No one ever has been able to offer a reason for why Avila takes, by consensus, probably the worst pummeling from foul balls of any catcher in baseball. Is it the Tigers’ pitchers, which feature plenty of hard-throwers and a surplus of wicked pitches that can be grazed and thereby carom off a catcher?

No one knows. But at some point, a man who missed time last year due to concussions and who was all but knocked out against Tuesday, will make the proper, long-term call on his life as a catcher – and as a husband and father. Social media proved Tuesday that even those who are frustrated by Avila’s offense were plainly worried about him and his health. The punishment he takes is almost grotesque.

David Price is delivering. Can his team justify July’s trade?

The Tigers had been wallowing through another series last weekend, this time against the callow White Sox. They split four games, playing horrifically in Sunday’s series finale. They were now obliged to play a hot Indians team and to take on an even hotter pitcher in Corey Kluber.

The Tigers on Monday mowed down Kluber and Co., not only because their bats turned ferocious, but because Price toyed with Cleveland’s lineup.

As everyone knows, this was why the Tigers made July’s deal. There was a push to make the playoffs and, once securing the playoffs, to have at the top of their rotation the best possible weaponry with which to win a short series. Price is an advantage on both missions.

Price’s arrival also means one of two choices now confront the Tigers and owner Mike Ilitch. Either they turn Price into a 1-1/2 season rental and watch him leave for free agency next autumn (possible) or they bump up the money they were going to pay Max Scherzer and sign Price to an extension that pays him $175 or more million to remain in Detroit.

This is not going to be easy either way. The Tigers paid a far heavier price in July’s trade than is popularly perceived. Drew Smyly is pitching terrifically for the Rays and the youngster Tampa Bay viewed as its real prize, Willy Adames, will be a dazzler if his development continues along the path scouts envision.

That’s a lot of freight, in addition to Austin Jackson, the Tigers jettisoned for a supposed win-now gambit that all but ignores this team might yet spend October with family and friends.

The other reality has to do with payroll and how it will affect future Tigers teams. Throw together salaries for Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, and a probable extension for Price takes the Tigers’ payroll obligations to something in the vicinity of $600 million for three men who all will be in their 30s. That figure, by the way, is twice what it cost to build Comerica Park.

No one knows how this is being viewed by the numbers crunchers at Ilitch Holdings. Is it money that must be assessed against the ongoing appreciation in a franchise Mike Ilitch bought for $82 million and that now is worth probably $1 billion or more? Is it money that will be assumed -- and snorted at -- by a new owner if, after Mike’s life is completed, the team is sold?

Whatever, owing three men, rapidly getting long in the tooth, more than a half-billion bucks is going to be felt on some level in the years ahead. Everyone wants to win now. Fans might also remember, five years in the future, they’ll also want to win – now.

And that’s going to be an interesting effort when so much debt will be tied to a payroll that will have its limits.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

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