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How Can the Tigers Replace Victor Martinez?

Catching is supposed to be the activity that slowly robs young men of their athleticism, but it was training that felled Victor Martinez. After keeping his legs fresh while being a primary catcher for seven years, the 33-year-old tore his ACL while ramping up his regimen for the coming season. Injuries can come at any time, and now the Tigers have a hole in their lineup that they need to fill.

How might they fill that hole?

It’s not the hole of a departing super-star, not any more. His bat can still give the team twenty runs of production at the plate, but his defense and base-running have slowly pushed him down from his five-win peak down to a more average neighborhood. With Alex Avila‘s competence behind the plate, and Gerald Laird in house to be the backup, the Tigers are looking to try and replace about two-and-a-half wins of offense out of their designated hitter position.

In-house, a platoon DH option might be able to approximate a lesser version of Martinez, minus the occasional turn behind the plate. Ryan Raburn is a righty that has so far shown a wicked platoon split and, in almost 800 innings at second base, poor infield defense (-23.8 UZR/150). Overall, Raburn has shown some problems with making contact and showing power consistently, but against lefties, he has a career 22% strikeout rate and a .237 ISO. That’s 632 PAs of 123 wRC+ offense that can play at least a quarter of the time.

Overall, Don Kelly has a similarly unimpressive line, as he’s shown very little patience or power at the plate. Limit the 31-year-old lefty to facing only righties, though, and he’s slightly more palatable. He’s shown an ISO over .144 with his contact-heavy approach against righties over the past two years, at least.

If you follow the maxim, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” you might notice how short the list of Kelly’s positive attributes was. If they can almost fill V-Mart’s 125-130 wRC+ a quarter of the time by slotting in Raburn, they’re still looking at a bit of a hole from the left side of the plate.

Luckily, there’s a platoon slugger out there on the market that could help: Carlos Pena. Though the lefty has seen his work against southpaws dwindle to a 59 wRC+ last year, he’s still able to turn on offerings from right-handers. Over the last three years, he’s averaged a 130 wRC+ against them even, with a strikeout rate closer to 25% than 30% and an ISO closer to .250 than .200.

Though we are talking about replacing a designated hitter, Pena does also offer a strong glove. Before the last three years, he put together a string of seasons with positive defensive metrics, and his defense has always been well-regarded. He may not push the slower Miguel Cabrera to DH every day, but he would offer some value on that side of the ball.

Squint and you could see a Raburn/Pena platoon managing offense that would be about 20% better than league average, along with about as much value with the glove as Martinez offered. So, they’re fine?

Well, there’s a big difference between Martinez and Raburn/Pena: While Martinez walks at about an average rate and strikes out only about 10% of the time — with barely above-average power — Raburn and Pena are more likely to strike out 25% of the time collectively, with above-average walk rates and good power numbers. How will that change the team dynamic?

The Tigers struck out 18.3% of the time last year, fifth-worst in the American League. Their 8.4% walk rate was fifth-best. Their .157 ISO was sixth-best. Since this move will increase their strikeouts and walks and power, it might be a wash in terms of overall team structure, but it’s obvious that this wouldn’t be their preferred approach to 2012. Their strikeout rate was already in the bottom half of the league, and now it’s likely to get worse. They used to have a high-contact hitter in the fifth slot, ready to drive in runs (Martinez had 103 RBI in 595 PAs), and now they’ll watch more whiffs in the same slot (Pena hasn’t managed more than 84 RBI in his last two seasons). The complexion of the lineup will change.

On the other hand, the Tigers placed in the bottom half of the league in fielding and baserunning, too. Keeping Raburn out of the infield and replacing V-Mart as a baserunner with the slightly-more-fleet-of-foot Pena should be worth a few runs. The fans projected Martinez for 2.5 wins in 2012 and this new — different — platoon should be able to fill those shoes.

Unfortunately, another popular left-handed former Tiger that has been suggested as a possible replacement — Johnny Damon — only has a lieftime 114 wRC+ against righties and that’s dwindled off a peak. If it’s not Pena, the team will certainly feel the loss at the plate.

It may not look the same, and Tigers fans will miss Martinez’ smile — and his son, if rehab takes them away from the team — but a little platoon creativity and a timely free agent signing should help them replace his production.