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Stars in their 30s paying off in big way for Tigers

Lynn Henning

Detroit – — Gambling is in fashion in Detroit, and not just at Motor City Casino, MGM Grand, or Greektown. It happens at Comerica Park. It has been happening, on a grand scale, since owner Mike Ilitch and his front-office general, Dave Dombrowski, began a decade ago investing mightily in new talent that was more like old talent.

Pudge Rodriguez. Magglio Ordonez. Kenny Rogers. Todd Jones. Gary Sheffield. Victor Martinez. Jose Valverde. Joaquin Benoit. Torii Hunter. Joe Nathan.

The above crew ranged in age from 31 (Ordonez) to 41 (Rogers) on the day they said yes to Detroit. With the exception of a damaged shoulder that doomed Sheffield, and age that might or might not have caught up with Nathan, almost all have represented dice-rolls that helped bring a long postseason or World Series ticket to the Tigers.

Martinez is the best and most recent example in how a front office and its scouts, blessed by Ilitch, have shopped smartly.

Four years ago, just as Martinez was turning 32, the Tigers went bold. They offered a switch-hitter with a .300-plus career average four years and $50 million. It was a jackpot that left more than a few front-office rivals happy they weren't on the hook for paydays so heavy and for so long to a hitter who almost certainly would fade.

Martinez is now three months from 36. He is having a career season: 32 home runs, .336 average, 102 RBIs, which were his numbers ahead of Friday night's duel against the Twins at Comerica Park.

The issue now, which would have been worth a laugh in 2010, is whether a free agent this autumn will get a two- or three-year contract for more dollars per season than Martinez yanked from the Tigers in 2010.

Detroit's decision to chase Martinez four autumns ago looks all the more sage when you remember a rather robust debate at the time about what big-hitting free agent would best serve the Tigers: Martinez, or long-ball-hitting Adam Dunn, who later got four years and $56 million from the White Sox.

Man in demand

How the Tigers approach Martinez as he skips toward November's free-agent bazaar will be interesting. The Tigers probably would bite on a two-year deal for $30 million. But with offense now at a premium across baseball, Martinez could easily pull from some club the three-year deal he and his agent firm, Octagon, would view as doable.

The Tigers, of course, will almost certainly make Martinez a 2015 qualifying offer, which is likely to be in the vicinity of $14 million. If they offer and he signs elsewhere, Detroit ends up next June with another early draft pick (between first and second round), which is likely to join yet another early-rounder they will get when and if Max Scherzer signs his anticipated Fort Knox contract with a club not named Tigers.

You can imagine a couple of things as the Tigers ponder Martinez. Minus his bat, this team, no matter how it chooses to replace him, will miss a master craftsman hitter whose value is almost impossible to overstate.

It must also be remembered Ilitch likes his stars, especially those who carry a venerable air. He has been protective of those players whether they have worn Red Wings or Tigers uniforms. Based on history alone, he will not easily watch Martinez play elsewhere.

Alternatives possible

But remember also how the Tigers have gone after big game at any point they have lost talent or have decided a particular player would be their playoff ticket for a coming season.

It's at that point, in assessing possible replacements, Ilitch and Dombrowski and Detroit's front-office wizards so often have come away with the right answers, even if those answers were men well into their 30s whose price tags were heavy.

You think back 10 years, almost 11, when Ilitch somehow convinced Rodriguez to join a team that a few months earlier had lost 119 games. Rodriguez was being cold-shouldered in a conservative market. Ilitch made one of his most important payroll investments ever, snagging Pudge for four years and $40 million.

You think about the following February, same time, same marketplace, and how the owner who likes stars and believes in taking calculated risks, wagered Ordonez had healed from his leg miseries and would be a cornerstone hitter for a future contender. Twenty months later, Ordonez launched a space-scraping homer into the left-field seats at Comerica Park that sent Detroit to its first World Series in 22 years.

Now it is Martinez who for the second time will pose a question: Should the Tigers pursue? Should they gamble yet again?

History says it's probable. History also says, if they don't get him, stay tuned — they have a retail-priced, 30-something replacement in mind.