Wojo: For Tigers and Victor Martinez, the end is near

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

It’s hard to watch. Victor Martinez takes his swings and trudges dutifully to first as he gets thrown out. Again and again, he hits the ball into the defensive shift, cursed by analytics and defeated by time.

These are the final snapshots of a great career, and the Tigers seem willing to let Martinez complete the picture. But in their effort to be respectful, they’re contributing to an undignified conclusion. And if they won’t make the difficult decision to sit Martinez down, the proud pro should do it himself.

This is not some angry, urgent demand. It’s a simple plea.

Martinez, 39, was too good for too long to go out like this, an aging shell on a rebuilding team, his formidable career numbers gradually diminishing. He doesn’t necessarily have to walk away, but his role should be drastically reduced. Or perhaps Martinez and the team can negotiate a graceful exit sometime after the All-Star break.

The Tigers owe him the remainder of his $18-million salary, so there’s no financial benefit in cutting him. There would be a competitive benefit, I suppose, because Martinez’s numbers are unfathomably bleak. He ranks 159th out of 163 qualifying hitters with a .600 OPS. Counting every major-leaguer with an at-bat, Martinez is 840th out of 843 with a -1.4 WAR. He hasn’t hit a home run since May 19 and doesn’t have an extra-base hit since June 15. His average (.236) and on-base percentage are career lows, and he has four home runs and 29 RBIs.

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The Tigers aren’t contending for anything, and they’re not impeding the progress of a ripe youngster by continuing to use Martinez at DH. But that could change soon, as Christin Stewart, 24, has returned from a calf injury in Toledo and leads the International League with 15 home runs, although he’s hitting only .269.

There’s no long-lasting damage for the franchise in letting Martinez finish out his final year, then retire. But does Martinez really need a season-long send-off? And more important, why would he want it?

He can’t be enjoying this, although he says he welcomes the chance to mentor young players such as Jeimer Candelario. He knows the end is near and has become increasingly reflective, and Ron Gardenhire has lauded the value of his veteran presence.


But on the field, it’s painful to witness. Fans’ frustration is muted because the Tigers have faded, but it’s hard to appreciate the end of a career when the ugly image repeats itself — Martinez swinging hard and sending a liner into the omnipresent right-side shift. He says he gets pitched inside so much, it’s difficult to hit the ball the other way.

Injuries have taken an obvious toll on a player who never was nimble, yet is a five-time All-Star with a .296 career batting average. A procedure last season for an irregular heartbeat provided perspective. The Tigers can let Martinez finish on his own terms because they’re not winning, but again I ask: Are these the terms Martinez envisioned?

“I will leave this game with no regrets,” he said the other day. “I know I left it all and I did everything I could to win and get better and be a productive player. I am going to go home happy. I’m going to miss the game, yes, I’m going to miss being around teammates. But you got to be honest with yourself. Your body is not the same. You wish you could play until you are 50, but it is what it is.”

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It’s not like Gardenhire has many options in his makeshift lineup. But at some point, the Stewart issue has to be addressed, even though the team steadfastly claims it doesn’t want to promote a prospect just to DH. Stewart is a suspect defensive outfielder who needs work, and there’s a possible solution: Put Stewart in right field and Nick Castellanos at DH.

Castellanos also needs a ton of work in the outfield, but there’s ample evidence he’s better suited to first base or DH. Those are decisions primarily for the offseason, and GM Al Avila is under no edict to settle them now. Theoretically, he’ll be spending more time assessing the market before July 31, although most of the Tigers’ potential trade pieces have stumbled or gotten hurt, and Castellanos’ defensive deficiencies decrease his value.

With Martinez, it’s a pragmatic approach more than a nostalgic approach, and Gardenhire has handled it delicately. Last month, he dropped Martinez from the cleanup spot to fifth, but notes how hard he has hit the ball without getting rewarded.

“He’s riding it out, and these young players look up to him,” Gardenhire said on 97.1 The Ticket this week. “He may not be getting all the hits, but he’s hit a lot of balls hard at people. He’s not driving the ball anymore, but goodness gracious, you gotta give him a break on that. I mean, his age is up there, and he means a lot to the club.” 

Martinez has spent seven of his 16 major-league seasons in Detroit, and as recently as 2014, finished second to Mike Trout in the AL MVP voting. The Tigers responded with a four-year $68-million contract that was for services rendered more than production expected. It was an honorable (if extravagant) gesture to a respected veteran, and everyone knew the final years would be difficult, as Martinez’s body wore down.

There’s not much left now, which is too bad. Sometime fairly soon, the Tigers or Martinez might have to make the tough call, before it becomes a regrettably easy call.