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Paul: Tigers might be smart to lock up J.D. Martinez now

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
J.D. Martinez

Lakeland, Fla. -- It's spring, the season for renewal -- and also the season for contract extensions.

This is the time of year teams make a fast pitch toward getting their quality young players locked up for the long-term, because once the clock strikes Opening Day, players are very reluctant to talk money until after the season is over.

They say they don't want distractions.

The truth is, they're also one step closer to free agency, and free agency is a very desirable thing.

The White Sox locked up their young center fielder, Adam Eaton, to a five-year, $23.5-million deal over the weekend, and then Tuesday morning, the Twins and young slugger Brian Dozier shook hands on a four-year, $20-million pact.

Both are good deals for both parties.

Now, will the Tigers follow suit?

Under Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers have had many more long-term contract discussions with established stars than they have had them with up-and-comers, but that could change in the coming two weeks.

Of course, David Price is Detroit's top priority. Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch want him here for the next five years or so, and there are rumblings some talks are in the works. Makes sense; the Tigers want rotation protection they didn't have last season after Max Scherzer turned down their offer, plus next winter's pool of free-agent starting pitchers is expected to be epic. That means owners can be pickier and thriftier, which could be bad news for Price.

There are two other names to watch here, and they're more in line with Eaton and Dozier.

Third baseman Nick Castellanos had a fine rookie season, and still maintains a high ceiling. And outfielder J.D. Martinez, well, we all know what he did last season, what he's still doing this spring training, and what he could do again in 2015. Both guys are extension candidates, though Martinez is perhaps the bigger priority, being Castellanos still remains a pretty big unknown on defense, plus Martinez is a tad closer to free-agency (2018, compared to 2020 for Castellanos).

The Tigers have to like the idea of paying Martinez a little more now, while getting a bargain in his first year or two of free-agency -- the same kind of deal the White Sox struck with Eaton, and the Twins with Dozier. Eaton is 26, Dozier and Martinez 27.

Now, is this a risky business? Sure. Not all players who were standouts when they were young will be standouts when they're older, for whatever reason, injuries being the main one (hello, Ryan Howard). But it's a gamble worth taking, because if the extension candidate keeps progressing, a deal has the potential to provide massive savings for the extending ballcub.

Of course, some Tigers fans still are waiting for the ball to drop on Martinez. Some Tigers fans simply can't be convinced that 2014 wasn't a fluke. Well, they'll learn soon enough. The kid is playing with so much confidence right now, 18 months after retooling his swing. He really does have 95-percentile power, and 99-percentile power to the opposite field. So don't be surprised if we're soon talking about The Big Three, and not just The Big Two of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.

The Tigers simply struck gold with J.D. Martinez.

And he could reap the big financial rewards, perhaps sooner rather than later.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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