Orlando, Fla. — The question was posed to Tigers general manager Al Avila late Wednesday night: Why not just buy out the last year of Victor Martinez’s contract?
“You got $18 million you want to give me,” he said.
It could still happen that way, the Tigers could ultimately work out some sort of buyout and thank Martinez for the memories. But it’s clearly not that simple.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Just put away that $18 million,’ ” Avila said. “But I think it’s a whole lot better, knowing that Victor is working hard now, making progress, he feels good — no heart issues. And he wants to come back and play.
“He’s into it. You’ve got to play it out and see how it works.”
Martinez will be 39 a week from Saturday and he’s coming off the worst season of his life, both from a personal standpoint and a professional one. He posted a .255 batting average with just 10 home runs and 47 RBIs. He had one productive month — May, when he hit .318 with four home runs and 16 RBI and had a .936 OPS. But, though he was relatively healthy, his production fell off quickly in June.
Former manager Brad Ausmus stayed with him, keeping him in the four-spot in the lineup — despite loud media and fan pressure to drop him — until June 16, when Martinez went on the disabled list with his first heart scare. He was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat.
When he came back on June 28, he was notified that he’d been dropped to sixth in the order. Martinez was ticked. As it was later learned, he did not appreciate that Ausmus made the move while he was on the DL and without discussing it with him.
Essentially, Ausmus just informed him it was happening when he returned to active duty.
From that point on, Martinez seemed to disengage from the team. He was not available to the media before and after games, at times putting teammates in the awkward position of having to answer questions about his performance or actions.
Martinez produced just five home runs and 12 RBIs after he was dropped in the order, striking out 30 times.
Things came to a head during the on-field brawl with the Yankees on Aug. 24. Justin Verlander and others took exception to Martinez standing on the mound during the fracas talking seemingly fraternally to Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez — who was one of the prime combatants in the brawl.
Four days later, Martinez had a second bout of arrhythmia and was ultimately shut down for the season.
Before that, though, Avila said Martinez and Ausmus had spoken and were mending the fences.
“Last year didn’t end well for him, with the heart problem and the other issues,” Avila said. “But at the end of the year he came to terms with everything and he really turned himself around from a mental perspective. Unfortunately, that’s when the heart problems started.”
Martinez underwent a heart ablation procedure in October and, according to the club’s medical reports, has a clean bill of health and has been cleared for full baseball activity. He’s been training and rehabbing since early November.
“Just when he was coming to terms with everything last season — he had talked to Brad and things were moving in the right direction for him — the heart problem came,” Avila said. “When I talked to him at the end of the year when he left, he was prepared to work hard and get back to health and come in with a fresh start.”
The Tigers have nothing to lose by bringing him to spring training and then assessing whether he’s got anything left in the tank.
“You still need a guy who can give you quality at-bats,” Avila said. “I think if he stays healthy, he can be a valuable guy in the lineup.”
Manager Ron Gardenhire is on board with it. Gardenhire planned to reach out to Martinez after the Winter Meetings.
“He’s always been a great hitter,” Gardenhire said. “I know that first hand from watching him kill me all those years.”
Again, the $18 million is spent money at this point. There is nothing to be gained by not seeing if Martinez can return to form.
“I will tell you something else and I think this is a real possibility,” Avila said. “He comes back healthy, has a decent first half and is hitting the ball — all of a sudden, for a short period of time a team may want him as a DH or a bat on a winning team (at the trade deadline).
“They aren’t going to pick up the remaining salary, but who cares? There’s some upside there.”
Martinez has his fate in his own hands. The Tigers would love for him to end his career on a productive note, one more befitting a proud player and one of the best switch-hitters in the game. It’s on him to make that happen.