Tigers mailbag: First offseason priority is re-signing Victor Martinez

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — More than payroll or star power, the reason behind the Tigers’ success in the American League Central is this:

They’ve absolutely beaten up on the team that’s closest to them in the standings.

■ In 2012, the Tigers took 12 of 18 from the White Sox, who finished three games back.

■ Last year, the Tigers took 15 of 19 from the Indians, who finished just a single game back.

■ And this year, the Tigers, after Tuesday’s victory, have taken 11 of 15 from the Royals, who have lost almost every percentage point of their narrow lead.

Asked to explain the Tigers’ dominance in the season series this year, Royals star Alex Gordon was happy to — so long as you didn’t expect him to dub it a fluke.

“No, no,” Gordon said. “They’re a good team. It’s not like we’re going up against a team we should beat. This is a good team with a lot of good talent. They have a lot of good hitters, and when they’re swinging it well, they’re tough to stop.”

Added Gordon’s teammate, Eric Hosmer: “They’ve had our number.”

And if that doesn’t change over the next five times these teams meet, the Royals likely will find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture for the 28th consecutive season.

The one thing the Royals don’t buy in to is the Tigers’ lopsided success again them somehow has to do with the Royals not having been in this position before.

“I’m sure some people said that about Detroit at some point,” Gordon said. “Every team has to start somewhere.”

Now, on to this week’s Tigers Mailbag.

Q: With so many holes, what’s the No. 1 offseason priority? I say an outfield bat with above-average defense. Is Steven Moya starting next year? – albino ab (twitter.com/albino_ab)

A: You’re right, albino. There are a lot of holes the Tigers will need to fill.

You’re also right. An outfielder has to be among the top priorities.

No. 1, of course, will be re-signing Victor Martinez. He’s earned every penny of the three years and $45 million he’s going to get, and the Tigers can’t afford to play hardball here. That has to get done. After that, yes, the attention must turn to the outfield.

When the Tigers acquired David Price on July 31 in a move that I’ll never criticize, they did part with a key part of their defense and offense, losing center fielder Austin Jackson to the Mariners. They’re also nearly certain to say goodbye this offseason to Torii Hunter, whose age finally has gotten the best of him on defense, if not on offense. And Rajai Davis, well, he was brought in to be a platoon player. It didn’t work out that way with Andy Dirks lost for the year following back surgery, but a platoon is when Davis is the best value, so his offense and defense aren’t exposed.

That leaves the Tigers with one sure-fire starter for 2015, and that’s the where-did-he-come-from J.D. Martinez.

Martinez, of course, is no peach on defense, either.

The Tigers do have some options in the minor leagues, with Moya being one of them, and Tyler Collins being another one. Both have good pop in their bat, but neither is projecting to win a Gold Glove anytime soon.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if the Tigers shop early and often for help on this front, especially since they obviously can’t count on Dirks again. The best-available, free-agent center fielder? That would be Colby Rasmus, who has an on-base percentage under .300 this year for the Blue Jays. That’s how weak that pool is. And it’s not much better on the corners. That means a trade is much more likely, with the Tigers peddling some of their blue-chip Single-A pitching for help on that front.

A notch below outfield on the offseason shopping list, well, that brings me to the next question …

Q: With Bruce Rondon coming back along with Joakim Soria, will the Tigers release Joe Nathan this offseason? — Lets Go Red Wings (twitter.com/xGoblue37x)

A: In a word, or three, not a chance.

For starters, let’s start with Rondon and Soria.

Everyone like to assume Rondon is a no-brainer to return from his Tommy John by next Opening Day, and that’s not a fair timetable, at all. It’s not out of the question, but each pitcher works at his own pace in rehabbing and strengthening following such a surgery. Just look at Joel Hanrahan. He had the surgery last May, the Tigers signed him this May, and he never made it to Detroit, thanks to a series of setbacks.

Rondon had his Tommy John surgery in March, and they say the 18-month mark is when a Tommy John patient is most often back to his normal ways. That would be late next summer for Rondon. So, in short, let’s not etch his name in stone for the Tigers’ 2015 bullpen.

As for Soria, he’s a no-brainer to return, with a bargain option for $7 million next year.

But Joba Chamberlain’s likely a goner, as is Jim Johnson — though one hurts much more than the other. Phil Coke, who’s revived his career, is a free agent-to-be, as well.

That leaves the Tigers with these certainties for next year’s bullpen: Al Alburquerque, Blaine Hardy and … uhhh … that’s it. Oh, and Nathan.

The Tigers still believe Nathan can find his way, but more critical to his future, he’s under contract for $11 million more through next year. The Tigers aren’t eating that, not when they still believe Nathan can get guys out, and not when they have almost no idea who’s going to be in the bullpen when they head north from Lakeland next spring.

Q: How much do you love Don Kelly? — Powerhouse (twitter.com/powerhouseOG)

A: OK, Twitter doesn’t have a sarcastic font, which is unfortunate, since that’s gotten me into trouble before. But I assume, Powerhouse, your tweet was dripping with snark. And I get it. Kelly isn’t Miguel Cabrera or Victor Martinez or Ian Kinsler or J.D. Martinez. So, fans, somewhat understandably, get frustrated when Kelly plays as much as he does.

That said, I like Kelly, as a person and as a ballplayer. Let me clarify that. I like Kelly as a 25th man on a ballclub. He can play all over the diamond, even at shortstop, catcher or pitcher in a pinch. And that provides some key flexibility in close late-game situations, where a team that doesn’t defend well can easily slot in a slightly-above-average defender like Kelly.

What I don’t understand, and will never understand, is why Kelly bats so high in the batting order when he does play. In 21 of his starts, he’s batted second, fifth or sixth, while in his other 13 starts, he’s batted where I think he more belongs, seventh, eighth or ninth.

That puzzles me, just because when I look at this team, I only see one player Kelly would be an easy call to hit in front of, and that’s Andrew Romine.

As for Kelly playing too much, I don’t think that’s necessarily fair, since he’ll actually play less this season than all but one of the previous four years. And the less playing time, mind you, might be the reason behind his better offensive numbers. He’s not getting overexposed, therefore has posted a nifty .350 on-base percentage, thanks to 20 walks that are actually tied with everyday outfielder Hunter.

Q: Nick Castellanos. A sentence on your opinion of him. — B C (twitter.com/byroncopley57)

A: Good question. Oh, wait, that doesn’t count as the sentence, does it? OK, let me start again.

I’ll go with this: Castellanos has had some to-be-expected growing pains this season, but he’s improved significantly from Day 1 — particularly on his two-strike approach at the plate, though not as much on his defense — and should be a considerable part of this team’s future for several years, even if it’s not at third base.

Long sentence, I’ll grant ya that. But you didn’t say it couldn’t be a run-on, so there ya go.

Q: Which Tiger will be the first to buy an iWatch? — Jeff Hopman (twitter.com/jeffhopman)

A: Hmmm, so many of these Tigers love their technology, but I’ll place the favorite as Justin Verlander, with Chamberlain and Brad Ausmus posting good early odds, too.

Jim Leyland, who still hangs around a little bit, is off the board. He still was rocking the flip phone not that long ago.