The season-ending injury suffered by Detroit Tigers’ designated hitter/”catcher” Victor Martinez has sent those watching the 2012 American League Central into a flurry of speculation. Who will the Tigers bring in to replace Martinez? Does this mean that the Tigers, favored by most to repeat as AL Central champs in 2012, need to start watching their backs for Cleveland and perhaps even upstart Kansas City?
While the injury definitely hurts the Tigers’ projected lead, these things rarely matter as much as people think. Martinez is a bit overrated as a hitter, but even so Oliver projected him to have about a .360 wOBA in 2012. Delmon Young projects to have about a .330 wOBA. If the Tigers simply gave Young all the plate appearances at DH, then moved Ryan Raburn (.335 projected wOBA) to left, that would mean they would only project to lose about 15 runs on offense in 2012 — less than two wins. Moreover, that does not consider the improvement Detroit would gain in the field by getting Raburn’s glove away from second base and Young’s glove, well, away. Cleveland and Kansas City’s chances would go up, but the Tigers are still the obvious favorites.
The Martinez situation raises a different, but interesting point: the problem of paying for a player at a “scarce” position at which he can no longer play. This is particularly poignant in the Tigers case because they just let go of a player in a similar position in Carlos Guillen. And this says something about why teams sometimes find themselves caught between leaving a player at a position he fields poorly or moving him off and hurting his value.
When Victor Martinez went on the open market during the 2010-2011 off-season, most observers noted that he probably would not be a catcher, but rather a first basemen or designated hitter, in a couple of years. While his bat was impressive for a catcher, it was much less so at the opposite end of the defensive spectrum. Still, value would still be present in the first part of the contract, at least, when he would be catching most of the time. With that in mind, it was stunning when the Tigers made it know not long after signing Martinez to a four-year, $50 million contract that he would be only catching a couple of times a week, and DHing most of the time.
Think about that: while Alex Avila’s impressive breakout season along with Martinez having some injury problems had something to do with Martinez moving to DH full-time, the Tigers were already planning on being more than halfway there prior to the season starting. It should be admitted that Tigers gave Martinez a contract commensurate with being a three-win player in 2011 (assuming a typical decline and increase in the average cost of a marginal win), and he did roughly achieve that.
Still, if the Tigers were already planning on acquiring a primary DH, why focus on a player whose main potential “surplus” value was his ability to play catcher when the team was already planning on easing him out of that role? They could not have known about this injury, which dramatically alters the value they will get out of the contract, of course, but by making Martinez a DH, they greatly reduced their own margin for error. It is particularly worrisome because Martinez is the kind of hitter who relies primarily on contact, as his walk rate and power numbers have both been in decline in recent seasons. That is not the kind of skill set that usually ages well, so the last couple seasons of his contract look less-than-promising, even more so since all that Martinez offers at this point is his bat.
One might expect the Tigers to know better, considering their situation with the aforementioned Carlos Guillen, whose four-year, $48 million contract (for 2008-2011, although it was signed prior to the start of 2007 season) with Detroit just expired. Guillen was a savvy acquisition (and Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, the most Jack Donaughy-looking GM in baseball, has made a few), as they got him in one of ex-Mariners GM Bill Bavasi’s first trades, for the high price of Ramon Santiago (who is back in Detroit and projected to get plenty of playing time at second) and Juan “Not That One” Gonzalez.
At the time, Guillen was a shortstop/infielder with injury problems but some promise, and it came to fruition in his first year in Detroit as he his .318/.379/.542 and finished with a a5.6 fWAR. Sure, he only played 136 games due to injury (hold on to that thought), but they still were smart to sign him to a three-year, $14 million extension in June. With a team-friendly deal like that, the Tigers were able to absorb Guillen missing almost half of 2005, although he played shortstop decently and hit well enough to still put up about two fWAR. Guillen probably had his best season when Detroit won the American League pennant in 2006, playing 150+ for the first time of his career while putting up a .390 wOBA and a 6.2 fWAR.
That performance is probably what prompted Detroit to give Guillen the 2008-2011 extension in advance, but one has to wonder if they might still have waited given that Guillen was already over 30, had a history of injuries, and had already spent a bit of time at first in 2006. In 2007 he managed to play more than 150 games again (it was the last time he would ever play more than 113 in a season), and while he still hit well (if not at 2004 and 2006 levels, of course), his defense at shortstop was noticeably slipping.
In 2008, Guillen played more than 100 games in a season for the last time (so far). He still displayed some good offensive skills, but age and injuries took their toll, as his defense at short continued to erode. Exactly how far the Tigers thought Guillen’s fielding had dropped can be gleaned from the fact that in 2008, he began the season at first base to make room for new big acquisition and noted hot corner wizard Miguel Cabrera. Needless to say, that experiment did not last long, and the players flipped positions, but that the Tigers even tried it says quite a bit about what the Tigers thought of Guillen’s defensive skills. Guillen did not exactly light it up at third, although he still walked enough that the drop in power meant he still had offensive value. Since that season, however, Guillen has been pretty much replacement level, with injuries, age, and defensive issues forcing him to he bounced around the diamond (mostly ineffectively) even when he was healthy.
This is not to say that the Tigers could have seen all of this coming with Guillen when they signed him after his big 2006 season (although they might have been a bit more way of injuries and age given his prior history). It is not hindsight about the Guillen deal that concerns me. Rather, it is interesting that even after signing Guillen at least in part because of his offensive value relative to his position (a shortstop who might have to move to third as he aged), much of that value went down the drain because he could not maintain that positional value.
Guillen was clearly going to be declining, but even five years ago, a .360 wOBA out of a shortstop would have been excellent. However, that .360 wOBA from a first basemen or DH is much less exciting. In Guillen’s case, it was difficult to see his defensive irrelevance coming that hard and fast. However, in Victor Martinez’s case, they opted to make him defensively marginal before they even signed him. Hey, at least Miguel Cabrera will totally be fine at first for the next few years, right?
The Tigers front office has done a good job of building an occasional winner from a team that prior to 2004, was the biggest joke in the American League, perhaps all of baseball. However, they have not always done so very efficiently. The Guillen deal should have taught them what some may see as an obvious lesson: just because a player has a good bat for a tough defensive position, he does not carry that positional value with him once he is moved from that position.
But hey, maybe that is what Brian Cashman is thinking about when he plans on having Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez march out to the left side of the infield every day.