McCosky: Probably no losers in J.D. Martinez negotiations

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
The Tigers and J.D. Martinez are $2 million apart in salary figures.

Detroit – It looks like the Tigers and J.D. Martinez are headed to the arbitration table, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing for either side.

Major League Baseball begins arbitration hearings Monday. Neither side has disclosed Martinez’s actual hearing date. It could be any time before Feb. 21 and the Tigers can continue to negotiate a long-term extension up until the hearing.

“I still have hope that we can get something done,” general manager Al Avila said Wednesday. But there wasn’t a ton of conviction in his voice.

The Tigers haven’t had a player get to the arbitration table since 2003, but Avila was quick to point out, you don’t get any prizes for that.

“That doesn’t really play into this,” he said. “That’s more of a media thing. If you have to go (to arbitration), then you have to go.”

The Tigers have submitted a salary offer of $6 million for 2016. Martinez, through his agency RMG Baseball, countered with an offer of $8 million. The arbitration panel will decide one or the other – there is no compromise.

Neither side will leave the table a loser.

The Tigers’ side

Without question the Tigers want to lock Martinez up long-term. He’s 28 (29 in August), and entering the prime of his career. He’s hit 61 homers and knocked in 178 runs the last two season. He made his first All-Star team last year, posting 38 home runs, 102 RBI and a .879 OPS.

But he is under team control for this year and next. There is no urgency to do a long-term deal and, economically, this wouldn’t be the most prudent time for the Tigers.

After signing Justin Upton, their payroll commitment for 2016, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, stands at $184,557,500. That’s for 16 players. If Martinez wins the arbitration case, which he most likely will, the Tigers would be over the luxury tax threshold with eight minimum-salaried players still to add.

If they were to offer Martinez, say, a five-year extension worth $90 million – which would be slightly below the market rate for a 30 homer-100 RBI outfielder – the average yearly hit would be $18 million.

Why would the Tigers do that now? Upton can opt out of his contract after 2017. Ian Kinsler and Anibal Sanchez are on the books for just $5 million each in 2018. The Tigers would seemingly be in a stronger financial position to lock up Martinez at that point.

Plus, if Martinez continues to produce at his current rate, he can take that deal well beyond the $100 million mark.

The Tigers would even be in a better position to extend Martinez before he hits arbitration again in 2017. There will be a new collective bargaining agreement in place by then, and by all accounts, the luxury tax threshold is expected to increase from $189 million to perhaps as high as $200 million.

It’s hard to find an upside for the Tigers in extending Martinez now.

Martinez’s side

Martinez was making the Major League minimum when he was designated for assignment by the Astros before the 2014 season. The Tigers gave him a one-year deal worth $3 million to avoid arbitration last year.

He’s looking at a $5 million raise if he wins in arbitration. So, even though he would love the security of a long-term deal, he’s hardly going to be pauperized by the process, especially with the very real prospect of a huge payday still ahead.

J.D. Martinez has 61 homers and 178 RBI the last two seasons.

Arbitration can be disheartening for players. It’s never fun to sit before a panel and listen to your employer argue that you don’t deserve the raise you are seeking. But Martinez fully understands the process.

“There’s no animosity, no feeling like that,” Martinez said before the Tigers’ winter caravan. “This is just part of it.”

There is also a mutual respect and trust between the club and player that doesn’t always exist in contract negotiations.

“I love J.D. Martinez,” Avila said. “Everybody knows how close I am with him and his family.”

Said Martinez: “I want to be a Tiger for life. … This team gave me my opportunity, so I would love to stay here as long as I can and finish my career next to Miggy (Cabrera) and Victor (Martinez). That would be awesome.”

It’s hard to picture Martinez becoming embittered by the process.

So, sure, in a perfect world the Tigers and Martinez would agree to a long-term deal before this hits arbitration and everybody is happy. But perfection is extremely rare in baseball, especially in baseball economics.

If both the Tigers and Martinez can come away from this negotiation, even if it’s settled by a third party, feeling like they’ve won – then no harm, no foul; let’s do it again next year.

Twitter @cmccosky