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Mensching: Tigers should give J.D. Martinez his big-money deal now

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News
J.D. Martinez could receive a one-year deal worth $7.3 million if he goes through arbitration, according to projections.

Tigers general manager Al Avila had his eye on J.D. Martinez for years. A year ago when the word "assistant" still preceded his title, Avila told of watching Martinez play in high school and later college in southern Florida.

Even as Martinez continued to work on the changes to his swing mechanics following the 2013 season that unleashed his full potential, Avila hoped his team would be able to acquire the then-Astros project, who hit .251 with 24 home runs in his first 975 plate appearances.

At the end of spring training in 2014, with the Astros hardly giving Martinez a chance to show off his new swing in exhibition games, Avila's wish came to fruition. When Martinez was released, the Tigers swooped in to sign him to a deal that would give him a fresh start in a new organization.

That's all he needed.

Over the past two seasons, Martinez has hit 61 home runs -- that's 18 more than Miguel Cabrera -- and driven in 178 runs, just seven fewer than Cabrera. On top of it, he's hit just shy of .300 in more than a thousand at-bats.

Martinez has arguably been the Tigers' second-best, second-most consistent hitter behind only Cabrera, the Tigers' sure-thing Hall of Fame first baseman.

That's not all he brings, either. Martinez proved to be above-average in right field in 2015, and his 15 assists ranked second among right fielders and tied for fourth among outfielders.

It's no wonder that the Tigers have had discussions about extending Martinez, who has two years of arbitration remaining before he can become a free agent.

So far he's provided incredible value. In not even two full seasons in Detroit, he's been worth about nine wins above replacement.

That ranks the Tigers' first-time All-Star just outside the top 10 in WAR among outfielders for 2014-15, slotting in just behind Alex Gordon and Adam Jones.

Fangraphs' calculations of Martinez's worth to the Tigers -- based on how much teams have been shown to pay on the free-agent market for each unit of WAR -- value him at $71 million.

He earned $500,000 in 2014 and $3 million in 2015, his first year of arbitration eligibility.

Thanks to Avila's eye, Detroit managed to get one heck of a deal the past two years.

Although Martinez becomes less of a bargain as his salary rises, buying out his remaining arbitration years and locking him up for several years beyond that would be a good idea.

Martinez can expect to earn about $8 million next year for his 28-year-old season, according to an arbitration estimate by MLB Trade Rumors. A conservative estimate would put him at least at $12 million in 2017 for $20 million total over the next two years.

After that, Martinez is going to get paid, and far more than Jones or Gordon are earning.

You have to figure a five-year deal signed this offseason would be in the range of $80-85 million. A sixth year would take a deal to about $100 million.

If Martinez continues to put up the numbers he has, he'd bring home even more per year when he reaches free agency. However, signing him now rather than waiting until later means the Tigers would be able to save a little money due to Martinez only have a two-year track record of great success, while Martinez would be able to assure himself a large, life-changing contract, knowing that neither an injury nor a season of poor performance would derail it.

In other words, a win-win situation for both parties, and one the Tigers should not hesitate to make.

He's already proven to be a popular player the Tigers can play their outfield around.

Avila was right about Martinez when scouting him years ago, and he's right today.