Wojo: J.D. Martinez, Tigers facing a pickle

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s a dilemma that will grow as the season unfolds. The Tigers sorely missed J.D. Martinez and can’t afford to lose him again. And yet, the more that’s apparent, the more this is apparent — they likely can’t afford to keep him.

Since his return from the disabled list five games ago, Martinez has four home runs, each as dramatic as the last. He stepped aside Wednesday night for Tyler Collins, who hit two home runs to break an 0-for-30 slump as the Tigers rallied past the Orioles 5-4. Justin Wilson survived the ninth with the normal bullpen tension, naturally.

In the meantime, the Tigers can welcome the impact of Martinez’s return. He blasted two home runs in one game, then hit two more the other night, including a grand slam that appeared to give the Tigers a stirring victory. Of course in this strange, unsettling season, nothing is quite as it appears. The Tigers lost that one to the Orioles 13-11 in 13 innings, and are stuck on .500 (19-19).

The twisted truth is, the more Martinez slugs, the tougher it might be for him to stay. This is the latest loan to come due for the Tigers, who have borrowed against their future for years and will have to get more creative — or financially daring — to continue. In the next two months, we’ll get a better glimpse at how far Christopher Ilitch will allow GM Al Avila to push it.

Martinez, 29, is not the type of player you simply let walk away, or give away, and the Tigers have to be very careful how they handle this. He’s a thumping right fielder with a great work ethic and a humble persona, a fan favorite who embraces the big moments. He’s also a pending free-agent, and for a team trying to scale back without tearing down, he would be a costly luxury.

The Tigers likely will have three options, and none are overly appealing. They can try to sign Martinez to a long-term contract that likely will top $20 million annually, and they already have a $22-million left fielder in Justin Upton. They can do what they did two years ago and sell high by trading Martinez before the July 31 deadline, restocking with more youth.

Rolling the dice

And then there’s the riskiest scenario, by far. They could play out the season, hope Martinez’s production helps them reach the postseason, then reluctantly let him depart to a higher bidder. That doesn’t make much sense, but if the Tigers are nipping at a playoff berth in July, it certainly wouldn’t inspire the masses to deal one of their best hitters.

The answer might reveal itself by where they sit in the standings. These are the tough decisions teams and players must make, no matter how fondly each side views the relationship.

Collins’ homers end slump, power Tigers over Orioles

As much as Mike Ilitch was willing to spend, he also saw the benefit of a timely sell-off, trading David Price and Yoenis Cespedes for Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd.

“I love this team, I love this organization, I think it’s a first-class organization,” Martinez said Wednesday before the game.

“When most teams passed on me, they’re the one that gave me the chance. I’d love to finish my career here.”

Unfortunately, the decision may have been made when the Tigers avoided arbitration and signed him to a two-year, $18.5-million extension two years ago.

That ensured he’d be a free-agent after this season, and ensured if he continued at his power-hitting pace, he’d be an expensive free-agent.

Avila hedged his bet — understandable, considering Martinez had just risen from obscurity to his first All-Star appearance — and Martinez bet on himself. Although he doesn’t like to talk about it, he’s due to cash in.

“He shouldn’t have to continually prove it, but he’s showing he’s one of the best power-hitters in the game,” Brad Ausmus said. “He’s got a real good sense and feel for his swing that was revamped three years ago, and it’s going to make him tens of millions of dollars as a result.”

There are no ongoing talks between the club and Martinez, as both sides head toward what could be an uncomfortable conclusion. Asked if he’d like an offer from the Tigers, Martinez said, “Of course, but it’s one of those things that we’re in the middle of a season, and it’s highly doubtful something like that would happen.”

It’s too bad, because during this 10-year stretch by the Tigers, Martinez is one of the great stories, a guy who was cut by the Astros and signed to a minor-league contract in 2014. Since being elevated to the majors, he has hit 87 home runs for the Tigers.

Martinez missed seven weeks last season with a broken elbow and was sidelined the first 33 games this season with a right foot sprain. With four home runs and eight RBIs in five games, his impact on an inconsistent lineup is unmistakable.

There’s the baseball truth, and then there’s the business truth. The Tigers’ payroll is still fourth in the majors. Significant salaries will drop off after the season, including the combined $27 million owed to battered pitchers Anibal Sanchez and Francisco Rodriguez, but the club is over the luxury tax.

‘Not worried about it’

Christopher Ilitch hasn’t explicitly stated payroll would be slashed, but since his father grew ill and passed, the strategy clearly has changed.

Avila has said the business model must be tightened, leaving little doubt the Tigers need to stay close in the AL Central to avert a major sell-off in July.

“That’s definitely what’s probably gonna happen,” said Martinez, who has hit .282 as a Tiger. “None of us are blinded to that, we all know what’s gonna happen.

“But I don’t even think about that. You guys are the ones that try to get me to talk about it, but I’m not worried about it.”

In fact, before that issue heats up, the ol’ lineup debate will simmer.

Martinez has batted sixth while Victor Martinez remains at cleanup, despite hitting only two home runs. J.D. Martinez said it doesn’t matter to him, while Ausmus is open to change, if necessary.

“It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg argument,” Ausmus said. “J.D. Martinez is tearing the cover off ball in the sixth spot, so do you want to move him? If I move him and he struggles, then I was the idiot. That being said, it doesn’t mean I’d never change it.”

This is where the Tigers sit during a season of transition. They’re not sure how good they are, where they’re headed, or how long one of their best hitters will be around. The suggestion to Martinez and the fans who cheer him is the same: Enjoy it while you can.