Commentary: Tigers already busy, recruiting Martinez, adding offensive skill

Former Boston Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez walks back to the plate after visiting pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka in the first inning at Yankee Stadium. Martinez has landed a position at the Detroit Tigers, and will add to the offensive strength, currently lacking in the team.

Tired of baseball? Ready to take a nice long break before easing into the Hot Stove league? The Tigers sure aren’t. Having already signed right-handed setup man Joaquin Benoit to a three-year deal worth $16.5 million last week, they continued to throw their financial weight around coming to an agreement with former Red Sox and Indians catcher Victor J. Martinez for four years and $50 million.

Going into the off-season it was no secret the Tigers needed to add offense. Despite Miguel Cabrera’s presence in the lineup during an MVP-deserving campaign, the offense remained underwhelming, finishing eight out of 14 American League teams in runs scored with 751.

Some even dubbed the squad “Miggy and the Mud Hens (the Tigers’ top minor league team)” toward the end of the season when injuries derailed much of the Opening Day lineup. The need was evident, and that’s what the Tigers believe they got with Martinez, a career .300 hitter.

Martinez is a switch hitter without a real platoon split. For his career he’s hitting an incredibly consistent .299 vs. right handers and .301 vs. lefties. His most valuable attribute to the Tigers is his power from the left side of the plate. The Tigers have lacked that lefty power bat since back when Carlos Pena hit 27 homers in 2004.

Martinez has hit 84 of his career 134 homers from the left side, a plus for a hitter leaving cozy Fenway Park for spacious Comerica. Surely Tigers fans will enjoy Martinez’s ability to deposit the ball in Kaline’s Corner in right field.

The puzzling thing about the signing is the expectation that the Tigers won’t play V-Mart at catcher for more than 60 games next season. This is an issue because of Martinez’s defense, which is suspect at best. He’s an on base and power threat when he walks to the dish, but the value of that is tied to him sitting behind it.

He’s not able to play decent defense at catcher or throw anybody out (only caught 21 percent of base stealers in ‘10), but his offensive output is well above the average catchers’ and more than makes up for his fielding follies.

If Martinez is only used for 60 games at catcher and 80 games at designated hitter and 10 at first base, then he’s ultimately less valuable because the team would then have Alex Avila’s noodle bat in the lineup for 100 games. I don’t mean to bag on Avila—who is still a young player and fine defensive catcher (32 percent caught stealing)—but the man hit .234 against righties last year while striking out almost twice as many times as he walked.

I’ll spare everyone the horror of seeing his small sample size numbers against lefties by just telling you Avila was a complete offensive nothing against southpaws last year. Manager Jim Leyland only sent Avila to the plate against a lefty 38 times, a lack of confidence that is quite damning considering his alternative was jettisoned Gerald Laird, who hit .207.

If the plan is for Martinez to only catch against lefties, the Tigers would be wise to sign a part time bat who mashes left-handers. A Marcus Thames return might not be likely as he is said to be working out a deal with Japan’s Softbank Hawks, but he’s the type of player that would fit this strategy. A superior offensive strategy would include playing Martinez as the everyday catcher and signing a legitimate DH.

One team beside the Tigers that’s grabbing offseason headlines is the most popular sports team on the planet, the New York Yankees.

Despite Major League Baseball’s recent edict to refrain from negotiations through the media—which is having about as much impact as MLB’s draft pick slotting system (none)—the contract negotiations for Derek Jeter have become very public. At first the Yankees offered Jeter a three year deal worth $45 million, a contract that would compensate him more than any other team in baseball is willing to.

Jeter’s agent, Casey Close, was “baffled” by this offer only because he lives in a fantasy world where every team never stops grossly overpaying their players. Close also represents the Phillies’ Ryan Howard, who signed a deal before last season that made him the second highest paid player in the game despite easily not being one of the top 30 players in the league. In short, the Yankees aren’t that stupid. The organization has already made Jeter rich beyond his wildest dreams, and the Yankees don’t owe him anything.

In fact, he’s lucky they still want him to play shortstop after the lack of range he displayed in the field. The brand is the Yankees, not Jeter. Babe Ruth played his last season with the 38-115 Boston Braves. Guess what position Mickey Mantle played for his last game? First base.

If Jeter believes $45 million is a slap in the face then please show me one team willing to match it. Until then, he is what he is: an unsigned, poor defensive shortstop, who hit .270 last year, and turns 37 next June. The hot stove will really heat up starting Dec. 6, the first day of the Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Until then, expect most of the big name free agents to remain unsigned.

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