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Is Victor Martinez a Fit in Detroit?

Last week, on Boston radio station WEEI, Peter Gammons stopped by and made quite the bold statement:

I don’t expect Victor Martinez to come back, I think Detroit is going to give him four or five years. And I don’t think anybody else is going to give him four or five years to be a catcher.

Bringing in Martinez would certainly help the Tigers at catcher in 2011. In 2010 their catchers, Gerald Laird and Alex Avila, combined to produce a .277 wOBA, which ranked 25th in the majors. Martinez, despite a slow start and a mid-season thumb injury, produced a .364 wOBA, which ranked fourth among MLB catchers with at least 400 PA.

The Tigers also certainly have the payroll to add Martinez. After shedding a number of contracts the have just $61 million on the 2011 payroll, plus a number of arbitration and pre-arbitration players. They should have plenty of room to maneuver, even if they lower payroll from the $134 million they paid in 2010. They’ll save money on a third baseman by re-signing Brandon Inge, so they can afford to put their payroll to work elsewhere. Since they went the defensive route at third, perhaps they will choose to go offense heavy at catcher.

Martinez, for his part, does have issues behind the plate. Of the 12 MLB catchers who qualified for the batting title, Martinez ranked lat in caught stealing percentage, at 21.4 percent. His career caught stealing rate is just 24 percent. Our defensive metrics also rate him poorly. DRS has him at two runs below average, while the fan scouting reports are a bit more harsh, pegging him at eight runs below average. Martinez will turn 32 in December, so it’s unrealistic to expect much of an improvement. In other words, while Gammons doesn’t think that anybody else is going to give Martinez four to five years to be a catcher, it doesn’t appear that the Tigers will, either. He’ll have to play elsewhere, too.

The question, of course, is of where. In the past he has taken reps at first base, but Miguel Cabrera will fill that spot now and in the future. That relegates Martinez to DH duties while he’s not catching — perhaps he’ll play some first while Cabrera DHs, but that probably wouldn’t be a frequent occurrence. The better chance is that he DHs when Alex Avila catches, and that Carlos Guillen, who turned 35 at season’s end, will take reps at DH when Martinez catches. Then, when Guillen’s contract expires after the 2011 season, Martinez can move into the DH role more often, perhaps acting as Avila’s backup as well.

That arrangement does put some pressure on Avila, the team’s fifth round draft pick in 2008. The Tigers certainly do like him; they previously drafted him in the 34th round of the 2005 draft. After getting a cup of coffee in 2009, Avila ranked No. 6 on Baseball America’s Tigers prospects list and third on Marc Hulet’s list. Both Hulet and BA agree that Avila will have to improve against LHP if he’s going to succeed in the majors. He didn’t fare well in that department last year, producing a .244 wOBA against lefties. With Martinez, who produced a .492 wOBA against lefties in 2010 and has a .370 career wOBA against them, there might be a platoon temptation. That will certainly help the 2011 Tigers, but Avila needs to face lefties in order to improve. That could create a tough balancing act for Jim Leyland.

Given the holes in the Tigers roster, their need for offense at catcher, and their available payroll, it does appear that Martinez fits well. The only drawback is that they can’t get him reps at first base, since they have a perennial MVP candidate there. But they can easily get Martinez 600 at-bats between catcher and DH. It would not surprise me one bit to see Gammons end up correct on this one. The pairing makes plenty of sense for both parties.

It also makes sense for the White Sox, a topic we’ll explore next week.