Commentary

There's no replacing Victor Martinez

Loss of invaluable middle-of-the-order hitter puts Detroit Tigers in a difficult spot

Updated: January 21, 2012, 12:13 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It was Wednesday night in Grand Rapids, Mich., barely 24 hours after the Detroit Tigers learned they'd just lost Victor Martinez for the 2012 season.

On the podium, at the first stop on the Tigers' winter caravan, Dave Dombrowski sat back and listened as the pointed questions began to fly.

Luckily for him, they were mostly being directed at our good friend, ESPN's own Tim Kurkjian, who happened to be the featured speaker at this annual extravaganza.

"I was glad Tim was there," Dombrowski chuckled Thursday, as he traveled toward caravan stop No. 2 in East Lansing. "He made my evening a lot more pleasant. He took a lot of the pressure off me."

[+] EnlargeVictor Martinez
David Richard/US PresswireVictor Martinez had the Tigers' third-highest OPS (.850) last season.

Yeah, we bet. Ah, but here's the bad news for the Tigers' president, CEO and general manager: He won't have Tim, Buster Olney, Aaron Boone or even a short Web Gems highlight reel to take the pressure off him for the rest of his offseason.

And that pressure only mounted this week, because he now finds himself faced with having to replace an irreplaceable player.

"You're not going to be able to replace Victor with one person," Dombrowski told Rumblings. "You're not going to find someone who can hit behind Miguel [Cabrera] and do that as a switch-hitter. That's not going to happen. And it's also not possible to replace Victor as a person around the club. He's a guy who was very valuable in our clubhouse in that role."

So even though the wound is fresh, the shock of Martinez's fluke ACL tear hasn't worn off and the Tigers' brass is still sifting through its options, Dave Dombrowski is a man with a realistic grasp of what is and isn't doable at a time like this.

It may be possible to replace some of Martinez's production. It may be possible to replace some of his leadership skills. It may be possible to move pieces around the chess board and make this work. But "some parts [of losing a guy like this], you just can't replace," the GM said.

So what exactly are Dombrowski and his still-formidable baseball team losing? Let's try to sum it up:

• Only four other players in the whole sport matched or beat Martinez's .330/.380/.470 slash line last season. You've heard of them: Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Braun, Michael Young and Cabrera.

• Because there are no meaningful defense or baserunning components to Martinez's game anymore, WAR only gives us a partial snapshot of him. But FanGraphs allows us to look just at his batting value. And when we do, we find his bat was worth 23.5 runs -- a figure that ranks him ahead of the likes of Adrian Beltre, Josh Hamilton, Mark Teixeira and a cast of hundreds.

• Dombrowski understands that nobody hitting in the No. 5 hole could inspire pitchers to challenge Cabrera in a big spot. But it's always helpful to have somebody who can make them pay when they don't. And Martinez had the highest batting average in baseball with runners in scoring position (.394).

• He also hit .404 (with a .440 OBP) with men on base, .571 with runners on third and two outs, .375 (with a .458 OBP) with two outs and runners in scoring position, and .500 with the bases loaded. So whatever your definition of "clutch" entails, it would be tough to argue that Martinez didn't fit it.

• And Baseball Info Solutions tells us that Martinez was the second-toughest hitter to strike out in the American League (behind Juan Pierre), had the highest BPS (Batting Average Plus Slugging) in the sport on balls out of the strike zone and was one of only three players (along with Paul Konerko and David Ortiz) to have an OPS over .900 in games serving as a DH.

So suffice it to say there's nobody hanging around the Motown Museum who is going to walk through the door and give the Tigers all that. Which means that, at some point, this team is going to have to make a move -- or, most likely, more than one move.

But Dombrowski made it clear he's not going to do something quickly just to say he did.

"I don't know that any of the guys who are available now are suddenly going to become unavailable anytime soon," he said. "So we have time to digest what we're going to do."

He's still in the "research" phase of this, he said. So there are no indications he is in heavy pursuit of any specific player yet. But from what we've gleaned from Dombrowski and people around the sport, here's a look at the Tigers' options:

Carlos Pena
Pena

Carlos Pena: Until Pena agreed to return to Tampa Bay, it appeared he was at the top of the Tigers' list. As late as Thursday, one source even called him "their No. 1 choice, without a doubt." Now, he's off the board. But at least we can think of him as the template for what the Tigers are searching for. In a perfect world, Dombrowski says, their preference would be to "skew toward the left-handed side, because the middle of our order is more right-handed." So that would seem to shift names like Vladimir Guerrero and Magglio Ordonez to the back of the stove. Pena, on the other hand, would have provided attributes like thump, patience, and clubhouse presence. Not to mention he's a good enough defender at first base that he would have allowed Cabrera to log a lot of DH time. There are no other first-base types who fit that profile. But that doesn't mean the Tigers don't have other attractive alternatives. So let's look at some other players who might fit.

Bobby Abreu
Abreu

Bobby Abreu:The Angels already had too many outfielders. Now that Albert Pujols has shoved Mark Trumbo and Kendrys Morales off first base, there's literally no room for Abreu anywhere. So he's not happy. And other clubs are reporting that the Angels emerged from their organizational meetings last week with Abreu as "their No. 1 guy to move." Abreu, who won the 2005 Home Run Derby in Comerica Park, vested a $9 million option for this season. So his salary is an issue. But while the Angels would love to jettison as much of it as possible, an executive of one club reports "they'll pick up enough to make it comfortable to move him." One thing to keep in mind is that it's believed the Tigers will collect significant insurance dollars on Martinez. So if they want to take on some other team's salary dump, without giving up much in return, that might just be doable.

Yoenis Cespedes
Cespedes

Yoenis Cespedes: Other than to acknowledge that the Tigers had shown interest, Dombrowski declined to discuss the mega-talented Cuban outfielder in any way. It still isn't clear when Cespedes will be free to negotiate with other teams. So it's impossible to say what impact his eventual availability might have on the Tigers' post-Martinez maneuvering. But folks in the Dominican, where Cespedes is playing winter ball, say the Tigers are "all in" on the Cuban phenom -- and certainly wouldn't seem likely to be less "in" after losing their DH, even though Cespedes is a right-handed bat.

Johnny Damon
Damon

Johnny Damon: Dombrowski had nothing but positive things to say about Damon, who was his team's primary DH in 2010. But remember, the Tigers essentially replaced Damon with Martinez last year because, in Dombrowski's words, they were "looking for more of a middle-of-the-order bat." And while he hasn't ruled out reaching out to Damon in this case, it doesn't seem logical that they'd pursue Damon after LOSING the middle-of-the-order bat who made him expendable.

Other options: Other left-handed-hitting free agents would include Hideki Matsui, Raul Ibanez, J.D. Drew and Kosuke Fukudome. Right-handed options would include Guerrero, Ordonez, Derrek Lee and Cody Ross. Other trade possibilities, though they're unlikely, would add Carlos Lee and Alfonso Soriano to this menu. And yeah, there's always Prince Fielder. But for a team that has a first baseman and that's looking for only a short-term fix, he "doesn't fit for us," Dombrowski said, as bluntly as possible.

If none of these options work out, the GM said he doesn't feel pressured to make a move he isn't comfortable with before spring training, because he expects some trade possibilities to present themselves in March. So it wouldn't be a shock to see the Tigers wait a while to pounce, if only just to see what happens with Cespedes.

But hey, at least it has to make Dombrowski feel all warm inside to know that so many people suddenly want to help him with this critical decision in any way they can. In fact, there may not be an agent or fellow general manager in North America who hasn't dialed his phone in the last couple of days -- just to say hi, of course.

"Yeah, I've heard from a lot of them," Dombrowski said with a laugh. "It's always a pleasure to catch up with people this time of year."

Ready to Rumble

• Here's a question several teams asked this week: "How come we never knew that Michael Pineda was available?" Interesting issue.

Michael Pineda
Pineda
Mariners

"I bet I've had a dozen conversations with [the Mariners] this winter," said an official of one club. "Never brought him up. I guess we didn't have what they were looking for."

And that, it appears, is exactly what went on here. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik clearly targeted a very select group of young, controllable, impact bats -- Jesus Montero, Mike Stanton, Logan Morrison, etc.-- and dangled Pineda only to those teams, for those hitters. Eventually, it turned out to be the Yankees who said yes.

But what if Zduriencik had made it more widely known that he'd talk about Pineda, the way the A's did with Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, the way the Padres did with Mat Latos? Would he, or could he, have gotten more than Montero and Hector Noesi?

"We were blown away when this deal went down," said one GM. "I can't believe they would trade that kind of player. I'm not sure how you do that and not contact everybody. I'm sure Jack likes the deal he made. But even if you don't match up, you never know what you might be able to get if you open it up to start exploring three-team deals."

• After any trade like this, a swap of two young players who appear bound for stardom, people start reading all sorts of ulterior motives into it. So let's get to conspiracy theory No. 1 -- that something is up with Pineda.

"I saw him in September, and he was throwing 87-91 [mph]," said one exec. "I'm sorry. You just don't trade [young, controllable] premium top-of-the-rotation starters unless something ain't right. I just find it strange [to] trade a front-line starter for a DH."

Now the common wisdom on Pineda is that he just slammed into a wall after hitting his innings limit. And no one else we surveyed was alarmed by his fading velocity down the stretch. But it's something to watch, because the facts back this up. For the record, here are Pineda's four-seam fastball velocities through the season, according to Pitch F/X:

April 5 (first start of the year): 94-98
June 1: 94-97
Aug. 9: 95-97
Sept. 21 (last start of the year): 91-93

Jesus Montero
Montero
Yankees

• Now here's conspiracy theory No. 2 -- that there were below-the-surface issues with Montero that caused the Yankees to dangle him in several major deals over the last year and a half.

The Yankees obviously insist otherwise. They're deep in catchers. And they just scored the second-most runs in baseball. So their take is simply that they dealt from strength, and the Mariners were doing exactly the same thing.

But we've written in Rumblings before that there are teams out there that have been wary of Montero despite his undeniable talents. And what turned them off was their perception that he showed signs of "big league-itis" before he ever reached the big leagues.

"I'm just not sure about his makeup," said one scout who covers the Yankees' system. "I don't like that he looked bored, at 21, playing professional baseball in Triple-A. Yeah, he'd had some success. But he acted like he'd won five batting titles in the big leagues. … I will say, though, that I saw signs of growth in the last year. I thought Jorge Posada had an effect on him last year in spring training. So hopefully, he got the message. And hopefully, it was just immaturity."

Cole Hamels
Hamels
Phillies

• The Phillies have tried their best to make it seem as if it's not a big deal that they signed Cole Hamels to only a one-year contract this week, even though he's a year away from free agency. But getting Hamels locked up long-term may not be as easy or inevitable as they've intimated.

There has never been a team in history with three $20 million-a-year pitchers in one rotation. But the Phillies are going to have to persuade themselves to inhale deeply and become the first, because they have no choice but to sign a 28-year-old former World Series MVP who joined Clayton Kershaw as the only left-handed starters in either league to have a sub-1.00 WHIP last year.

The Phillies have been hoping that Hamels would take a Jered Weaver-type deal. But Hamels' agent, John Boggs, has been adamant that Weaver isn't their idea of a comparable case. And we would conjecture that there are two reasons for that: 1) CC Sabathia, and 2) Ryan Howard.

Why CC? Because he was the last left-handed ace to hit the market at age 28. And it got him a seven-year, $161 million deal from the Yankees that he has since parlayed into an eight-year, $182 million guarantee. The Phillies would argue that Hamels hasn't reached that market yet. But now that he's agreed to a contract that covers his final arbitration season, all that remains are his free-agent years. And is there any doubt he'd get ace-type money next winter if he reaches the free-agent auction house?

OK, so why Howard? Because it would be nuts to think Hamels didn't notice that the Phillies reached out to their first baseman, two years before his free agency arrived, and paid him top-of-the-market dollars (five years, $125 million). There was no hometown discount in that package. So why would they expect Hamels to take one?

"The Phillies have proven," Boggs told Rumblings, "that if they've got a player and they like the player, they'll pay pretty close to free-agent value."

He didn't name any names. But you don't need to be Ruben Amaro Jr. to connect those dots.

Dodgers

• As Buster Olney has mentioned recently, if Hamels does reach free agency, the Dodgers will be perfectly positioned to make it worth his while. It's amazing, in fact, how much other teams fear the Dodgers' potential spending power once their new owner is in place. Remember, L.A. has only TWO players on the roster signed beyond 2013 -- Matt Kemp and Chad Billingsley.

"Next year this time," said an exec of one team, "the Dodgers will be THE team calling up every marquee free agent. They're going to have serious money. They'll be the Yankees West. They can just look at that free-agent list and cherry-pick whoever they want. And why would anyone not want to go there? They'll be the sleeping giant in free agency next year."

• After trading for Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman this week, and after agreeing to a minor league deal with Jamie Moyer, Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd has assembled so much controllable starting-pitching depth, he might turn around and trade an arm or two to replenish his position-player prospect pool. Other clubs report the two Rockies pitchers O'Dowd is dangling are Jason Hammel and Kevin Slowey.

• Clubs that have spoken with the Angels are downplaying the possibility that they'll still add a closer to supplant Jordan Walden. They've been poking around for another left-handed reliever, they've checked in on Brad Lidge and they're basically "looking to deepen their supporting cast," said one exec.

• Six games into his winter-ball season in the Dominican, Yoenis Cespedes was 3-for-23, with six strikeouts and one eye-popping home run. And that's had some people asking: Why would his agents let him play before he signs? Well, two reasons:

One, the guy hadn't played organized baseball in 10 months, and he needed a dose of Rust-oleum. The other? There were teams interested in him as a fellow who could potentially start in their outfield on Opening Day THIS year, and they were getting antsy to see him play.

"No matter how much you'd love to see him in your lineup Opening Day," said an official of one interested club, "there was zero chance of that happening at this point unless he started playing organized baseball."

• Agents who have spoken with the Yankees say that, despite rumors they could sign a DH type like Damon, Matsui or Ibanez, the team is low-keying its interest in any bats. One source says that, in truth, the Yankees have told agents their "pursuit" of a veteran DH is actually "a very low priority." So they're likely to sit back and bottom-feed in a couple of weeks.

• The Yankees HAVE been trying to get the word out, since the Pineda trade, that they'd be delighted to trade their favorite, non-essential $16.5 million-a-year starter, A.J. Burnett -- preferably for somebody else's ugly contract. But good luck on that.

Tweets of the Week

• From the fertile, fictitious desk of @FakeFredWilpon, on the offseason adventures of the Mets' favorite knuckleball king:

• One more from @FakeFred Wilpon, on how the Mets are planning to counter the Yankees' invention of the Pinstripe Bowl:

• And speaking of football, the legendary Batting Stance Guy (@BattingStanceG) checked in last Sunday after John Kuhn contributed to the Packers' mounting turnover total against the Giants:

Game of the Week

Finally, there is still baseball being played out there, you know. Just not in the good old U. S. of A. And, as loyal reader Santiago Rodriguez reports, there was a game played in the Venezuelan winter league last Saturday that seemed pretty much impossible -- until it happened.

Heading into the ninth inning, the Zulia Aguilas were trailing the Valencia Magallanes 6-1. But … three home runs, three singles, three walks, a hit batter and a dagger of an E-6 later, Zulia had scored NINE times to grab a four-run lead (10-6).

So this thing was over, correcto? Uhhhh, incorrecto, senores y senoras. Five walks, a home run, four pitchers, two pinch-hitters, one pinch runner and one walkoff single later, Valencia had put FIVE runs up in the bottom of the ninth to win 11-10.

Well, we know what you're wondering. You're wondering exactly what Santiago Rodriguez was wondering: Has this ever happened in a big league game? The answer, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, would be no. In fact, there has been only one game in big league history that even came close.

It happened a mere 121 years ago, Philadelphia Phillies at Cleveland Spiders on July 4, 1891. The Phillies scored 10 in the top of the ninth to take a 14-11 lead, then gave up four in the bottom of the ninth to lose 15-14. So our advice to you would be: Don't go looking on YouTube for the video of THAT game. But if you want to check out the frantic finish of that game in Valencia, here ya go.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter .

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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