Victor Martinez setting himself up for another big contract, but will Tigers pay it?

By Tom Gage
The Detroit News

Cleveland — Signed through 2014.

It’s a phrase that applies to a lot of current Tigers who are eligible to become free agents at the end of the season: Max Scherzer, Torii Hunter, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Coke.

And, of course, Victor Martinez.

Not to say their return to the Tigers, in the order of its importance, is equal, but as vital as Scherzer is to the rotation, do you really want to envision a batting order without Martinez?

Didn’t think so.

At 35 years old, he’s having his best season.

Following the Tigers’ 11-4 11-inning victory over the Indians on Thursday night, Martinez was hitting .332, which would be a career high if it ended that way. The same goes for his .404 on-base percentage, his .569 slugging average and his .973 OPS (on-base plus slugging).

Martinez’s three-run home run in the 11th was his career-high 29th this season — and at 93 RBIs, his fifth season of knocking 100 runs is well within reach.

On Wednesday, Martinez was named the American League’s Player of the Month for August, the first time he’s ever received Player of the Month honors.

“I’m not going to lie, it means a lot to me,” Martinez said. “Eleven or 12 years in the big leagues, and this is my first time doing it.”

In August, Martinez hit .350 with six home runs and 30 RBIs — the first time in 10 seasons, and just the second time ever, he’s driven in 30 runs in a month.

“I know this, it’s really tough to knock in that many runs with Miggy (Miguel Cabrera) hitting in front of me,” Martinez said.

August was one of the best months of his career — which is why his free agency, with less than a month remaining in the regular season, seems to loom larger than ever.

Actually, it doesn’t just seem to loom larger. It does.

Already there is speculation that the White Sox would like to sign Martinez — and that the Indians would love to have him back.

Cleveland meant so much to Martinez that when the Indians traded him to Boston in 2009, he wept. So don’t think he wouldn’t enjoy returning.

Even in this age of qualifying offers, any number of teams probably will want to sign Martinez, thinking nothing of the fact he will be 36 in December.

The evidence is unmistakable: He’s getting better with age.

“He has a passion for the game,” Tigers’ manager Brad Ausmus said about Martinez recently, “and a passion for hitting that’s unequaled.”

Ausmus wasn’t telling other teams something they didn’t know. Martinez’s focus on every at-bat is well known.

Ian Kinsler calls it “his Ninja-like focus. I’ve never seen focus at the plate quite like Vic has for every single pitch, whether we are winning or losing by a lot.”

In an honest self-appraisal of earlier years, Martinez said he used to give away some at-bats. That doesn’t happen anymore. No one in the Tigers’ lineup is a tougher out.

Martinez is in a virtual tie this season for the best strikeout ratio in the AL with Houston’s Jose Altuve at one for every 12.4 at-bats.

Last season, Martinez led the category with one strikeout for every 9.8 at-bats.

Kinsler, with the next best ratio on the Tigers, marvels at how Martinez is head-and-shoulders above other hitters in his ability to make contact.

“He has excellent control of the strike zone, trusts himself with two strikes, and isn’t scared to take the first two pitches and be down 0-2,” Kinsler said.

“It’s fun to watch.”

But here’s one more impressive fact about Martinez: If OPS is the yardstick of success, his August wasn’t as good as his May.

But because both of them were outstanding, 2014 is his only season in which two of its months are among the top 10 OPS’s of his career.

May, at 1.131, was his second best. August, at .989, was his seventh.

Not making the list were August of last year in which Martinez hit .386 for the Tigers, but without much power — and May 2004, the only month (other than this August) in which he drove in 30 runs. But he hit “just” .315 that month.

It all comes down to, of course, the same conclusion. Martinez is an indispensable bat in the Tigers’ lineup.

But a career year of a fine career can lead to multiple offers as a free agent. Martinez has never said anything other than that he enjoys playing in Detroit — and for Detroit.

For one thing, he’s within driving distance of his home in Orlando in spring training, and for someone as family-oriented as Martinez, that can’t be discounted as a factor.

He certainly can’t drive from Orlando to Phoenix.

But there will be several factors in Martinez’s decision: Length of contract, perhaps the post-season outlook for other teams interested in him.

He’ll have choices — and will almost certainly be in a position to play several more years.

“I think,” Martinez said in agreement. “What do you think?”

That if the Tigers are wise, they’ll make it difficult for him to leave.

tgage@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/Tom_Gage

Victor Martinez’s top-10 months for OPS:

Year

Month

Team

BA

OPS

2006

April

Indians

.398

1.134

2014

May

Tigers

.372

1.131

2009

April

Indians

.386

1.082

2005

August

Indians

.402

1.058

2013

July

Tigers

.390

1.010

2011

September

Tigers

.360

1.003

2014

August

Tigers

.350

.989

2007

June

Indians

.349

.984

2004

June

Indians

.333

.968

2010

September

Red Sox

.330

.967