Wojo: Near-healthy Martinez brings Tigers ray of hope

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Victor Martinez

Lakeland, Fla. — It was the scariest moment of the Tigers offseason, and it happened on a residential street in Orlando, Fla. Victor Martinez was playing catch with his brother, and then with one agonizing twist, he was playing catchup again.

The left knee buckled and the pain jolted, and the first instinct sent Martinez into panic. He thought it was over again before it started.

"I was really scared, I'm not gonna lie," Martinez said. "I felt the pop in my knee and the first thing going through my head was what I went through the last time."

The latest injury occurred last month in front of his Florida home, and plenty looked dark for the Tigers. But Tuesday, on the morning of the Grapefruit League opener, Martinez sounded like a guy reborn. Now it's true, everything seems brighter and sounds livelier in the Florida sun. For instance, the grand slam rocket by Yoenis Cespedes during the Tigers' 15-2 rout of the Orioles might have shown up on NASA monitors, but no one's saying.

Martinez will be one of the closely monitored storylines here, but it could've been much, much worse. The twist didn't wreck his knee and didn't wreck the Tigers lineup. And as Martinez took his first intrepid swings of the spring, there was a wave of relief as palpable as the breeze rustling the palms.

Don't overdo it

Martinez didn't suffer the major damage he did in a 2012 workout, when he tore the ACL in his left knee and was lost for the season. That time, the Tigers had the resources to respond, quickly signed Prince Fielder to a gigantic contract and reached the World Series. This time, the Tigers already were preparing for a season of uncertainty. Max Scherzer is gone. Miguel Cabrera is recovering from foot surgery. Justin Verlander is rebounding from his lingering recovery from surgery.

After surgery Feb. 10 to clean up the torn meniscus, Martinez was told by Dr. James Andrews it would be 4-6 weeks before he'd be ready to go. Tuesday was the three-week mark, and you can bet Martinez is counting.

So are the Tigers, because there's no Prince riding in this time. Martinez, 36, is coming off the best season of his career, posting remarkable numbers — .335 batting average, 32 home runs, 103 RBIs — and finishing second in the AL MVP voting. More than ever, he's needed with Cabrera uncertain for Opening Day.

Martinez was expected to pick up starts at first base, but that plan might be on hold. He took 25 swings from each side off a batting tee in his first workout Monday, and hopes to add a few each day. He said "everything felt great," and now the Tigers' biggest task is to keep him from swinging too often.

"If you don't have a coach putting balls on a tee for him, he'll keep hitting until the cows come home," Brad Ausmus said. "It's not hyperbole. He would legitimately hit too much. You have to say that's it, you've done your 40 for the day, go to your room."

Irreplaceable

All things considered, it's a nice problem to have, trying to get your star designated hitter to slow down. Ausmus said he thinks the offense can be more potent with the addition of Cespedes, but there was no replacing Martinez in the lineup or the leadership role.

"As soon as I found out about (the injury), I called Vic," Ausmus said. "And I could tell in his voice he was nervous. In my mind, I'm immediately imagining our lineup without his bat. It'd be significantly weaker, especially with the fact he's a switch-hitter."

The timing of the injury could have been staggering, shortly after Martinez signed a four-year, $68-million contract. But if — that infamous if — the Tigers get a few recovery breaks, their offense indeed could surpass forecasts. Besides Cabrera's expected return to full health, Jose Iglesias could add a spark if his shin-splint injuries don't recur. And then there's the added power of Cespedes and the speed of Anthony Gose.

Martinez has to be smart and not rush it, and that won't be easy for a workaholic perfectionist. But he'd also like to kill any urban myths before they get started. Although he has been injured twice in offseasons, neither occurred during maniacal workouts. In 2012, he hurt the knee doing simple lateral agility drills. He said this one was even more innocuous.

"Believe it or not, I wasn't doing anything, just playing catch," Martinez said. "The first thing in my head was, not again, not again, not again. I start thinking, maybe I shouldn't do anything. I might show up the next three-to-four years 30 or 20 pounds overweight. But I can't just sit in my house and not do anything and show up out of shape."

I suggested that sounded like a sportswriter's offseason regimen and he laughed, the best sight and sound of spring training so far. If Martinez can be ready to play the final couple weeks of the spring to get his timing right, he could be back to normal by Opening Day. As abnormally dominant as he's been, a return to normalcy would suit him just fine.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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