Kansas City, Mo. — There were tears. Of course there were tears.
The Tigers on Tuesday traded one of their most popular players, a player whom general manager Al Avila described as being like one of his own kids.
So when he pulled J.D. Martinez into manager Brad Ausmus’ office just a couple hours before the game and informed him he’d been traded to Arizona for three infield prospects, it was deeply emotional.
“It was a very difficult process for me,” Avila said. “We cried because this is not what you planned to do. We all wanted to win. We all wanted to keep our players. But at this point, this is the best thing for this organization at this time.”
Martinez, who was hitting .305 with a .630 slugging percentage and a 1.018 OPS with 16 home runs, will be a free agent this off-season. And with the Tigers going into a rebuilding and payroll-slashing phase, they weren’t likely to re-sign him to a long-term contract.
“I don’t think he was surprised, but I think he hoped it wouldn’t happen,” Avila said. “I didn’t want it to happen. I wanted us to be in first place. It was hard for him. This is his home. This where he got his opportunity. This is where he became J.D. Martinez, and our relationship was special.
“It was very hard to do.”
After saying goodbye to his now former teammates, Martinez, still in his Tigers gear, tried to verbalize the swirl of emotions running through him.
“Definitely hard,” he said. “It’s one of those things, I knew it was happening, knew it was going to happen, but you don’t know how you are going to feel. It doesn’t hit you until they tell you.
“I love this team. I love the organization. I love the fans. I loved everything in Detroit. This is home for me. They were the organization that believed in me when every other team passed. I had a feeling this was on the horizon, but I wish it could have been different.”
He said he knew for sure he’d eventually be traded when the team was in San Diego and in the throes of an eight-game losing streak.
“I wish we came out hot and been in first place,” he said. “Then all of a sudden we would be in a position to make a run here. But God had other plans. This is what He wants for me. I will take it for what it is and be excited. I am going to another good organization in Arizona.”
In 3 1/2 seasons with the Tigers, Martinez hit .300 with a .551 slugging percentage and a .912 OPS. He hit 99 home runs and knocked in 285 runs. The Diamondbacks, who play in a conference with a lot of elite left-handed pitching, coveted the power numbers, but they also loved that he destroys left-handed pitching (.474, with a .556 slugging and 1.105 OPS).
“I knew this was hard for Al,” Martinez said. “Like I told him, ‘There is no animosity to it. I know it’s hard but I get it. I understand the situation you are in. I understand what you have to do and I am completely not mad about it.’
“I wish I could stay here. I wish we were in first place. But I am just glad he let it go this long and didn’t do it before the season. … I love Detroit but Al is doing what’s best for the organization and I respect that.”
The deal might have been done Monday night had Martinez not come out of the game with back stiffness.
“That definitely delayed the trade today,” Avila said. “They were concerned about it. The timing was really bad. Yesterday we were close to a deal and came out of the game. That was very awkward and the timing wasn’t the best. But they gave him a thorough check and he was fine.”
Avila was asked why he decided to move this quickly on Martinez. The trade deadline is still two weeks away.
“We did our research and our homework quite well,” he said. “If you see what’s reported, you might think there were 29 clubs out there knocking the door down — it wasn’t like that. The options were somewhat limited. You have to go with the teams that you feel really want to deal and are willing to put forth the effort to get him.
“We like this package. To risk going to the last couple of days before the deadline to see if something better develops for us wasn’t that important because the deal we got is a good deal.”
The three infield prospects the Tigers got from the Diamondbacks were: Third baseman Dawel Lugo, Arizona’s No. 2-rated prospect according to Baseball America; shortstop Sergio Alcantara, ranked 15th in the organization; and Jose King, who is in rookie ball.
Lugo becomes the 11th rated prospect and Alcantara 18th in Tigers organization per MLB.
“We are very happy with this package,” Avila said. “Getting young position players was a target of ours, that’s a need for our organization. We think these three should be in the top area of our prospect list.”
Of the three, Lugo, 22, is closest to being big-league ready.
“We feel he is a very good defensive third baseman that can hit,” Avila said. “He barrels the ball a lot and we like his swing. We think he’s going to be a real good third baseman at the major-league level.
“He’s at Double A and he’s done well. We will send him to Erie and we project he will be at Triple A next year, so he’s not too far off. He was the main guy in this package.”
If projections are true, he would be ready to play in the big leagues at the same time Nick Castellanos, the current third baseman, hits free agency. Thus, the Tigers could relive this process again with Castellanos.
Of Alcantara, Avila said, “He’s playing at high A and he’s very good defensively, very athletic. He’s a switch-hitter and we think he will hit enough to be an everyday shortstop in the big leagues.”
King, also a shortstop, is more of a project.
“He’s the furthest away,” Avila said. “We went that route because we feel he has a really high upside. He’s a toolsy kid, very hard worker and with tremendous make-up. We had some good side information on him. He’s more of a high risk/high reward guy but because of his tools and his make-up, we like his upside.
Martinez left the door open for a return to the Tigers, saying baseball was a crazy business. But he was trying to shift his focus forward.
"Once you walk into that clubhouse, you are no longer a Tiger," he said. "You are a Diamondback. It will be weird, obviously — new club, new players. But they have a great team over there. They've been good for a reason. I am just going to hop on their train and do what I can to help them keep doing what they've been doing."