Sunday marked three years since Victor Martinez signed a $68 million deal to return as the Tigers’ designated hitter for an additional four years. It was at the time risky, and today it is emblematic of a franchise forced to pay a multi-year penalty for its largesse.
Martinez was then a 35-year-old coming off arguably the best season of his career. He put up career bests in batting average (.335), on-base percentage (.409) and slugging average (.565), earning recognition from the baseball writers with a second-place finish in the American League MVP voting.
The Tigers bowed out of the playoffs in the first round that year, a season after they had maybe the most-deserving World Series roster since the Bless You Boys era Tigers. Miguel Cabrera had been battling injuries, and anyone being honest with themselves could see that the window on the organization’s championship hopes was closing. Max Scherzer took an expensive deal with the Nationals that even the Tigers owner’s deep pockets could not match. David Price and Rick Porcello were set to be free agents after 2015, leaving just two of the handful of aces — Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez — remaining.
Faced with the economic realities of expiring contracts and spiraling payrolls, owner Mike Ilitch and general manager Dave Dombrowski did what they thought they had to do: give the Tigers a chance to win it all in 2015 and pay the bill later.
The kind of deal the Tigers gave Martinez was bound to fail, and that’s before even considering the roster implications that would force an oft-injured Cabrera to play daily at first base for the next four years.
Beginning with Martinez, the Tigers went on to make a slew of other short-sighted moves that would eventually result in Dombrowski’s dismissal and his protege, Al Avila, tearing down the organization and confining it to a multi-year rebuild.
■ traded second baseman Devon Travis to the Blue Jays for Anthony Gose to shore up a weak defense;
■ traded shortstop Eugenio Suarez and pitcher Jonathon Crawford to the Reds for Alfredo Simon;
■ traded pitcher Robbie Ray — the key acquisition in the Doug Fister deal a year earlier — to the Diamondbacks in a three-team deal to acquire Shane Greene from the Yankees;
■ traded Rick Porcello to the Red Sox for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.
Ignoring the last deal there, as both players were set to become free agents after 2015, the Tigers gave away two young middle infelders who would account for 6 WAR apiece (per Baseball Reference) over the coming years, along with a pitcher who has been worth 7.4 WAR for the Diamondbacks and made an All-Star appearance in 2016. None of the three has earned as much as $600,000 in a season for their efforts.
The kindest thing you could say about the ensuing years for Martinez is that in 2016 he hit 27 home runs and reminded you of the player he used to be.
A little more than two months after signing his deal, Martinez tore the medial meniscus in his left knee — the same knee that cost him the entire 2012 season with an ACL tear — while playing catch with his brother. A little less than three months after signing the deal, Martinez underwent surgery.
Martinez made it back to the team in time to take his place fourth in the lineup on Opening Day, but by May it was clear he wasn’t the same and another lengthy DL stay was needed.
He came back a little better but finished the year with a .667 OPS and -1.6 WAR — making him less than average at hitting when his only job is to hit.
He had an OPS of .826 in 2016 and a WAR of 1.6.
And in 2017, Martinez again took a step back, with an OPS of .697 and a -0.6 WAR. Over the last three years, the Tigers have paid him $50 million and received a player worse than replacement level in return.
They sold off expiring contracts in 2015 while careening to 87 losses. They battled but narrowly missed the playoffs in 2016. They threw in the towel on an era in 2017 and barely avoided 100 losses for the worst finish since 2003.
Today we could talk about what the Tigers should do with Martinez next year, if he is even cleared by his doctor to play baseball professionally again after he’s been diagnosed twice with an irregular heartbeat, which required surgery. But that question doesn’t matter much, as far as the best outcome for the team goes.
We knew on that fateful day in 2014 that signing Martinez to a four-year deal would not turn out well by the end. We know now that it was a dark day that would lead to at least a half-decade lost, because the team looked at its roster and chose immediate gratification rather that what would lead to the most competitive team long term.
That is a lesson best remembered by all in the years to come.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.