Victor Martinez has torn up his left knee, which would be bad news for the Tigers at the best of times. The worse news is that it caps an ugly Tigers offseason already fraught with concern over whether we’re about to see them fall from their perch atop the AL Central, and where every setback could spell doom for the bid for a fifth straight division title.
Admittedly, we won’t really know until after he has his operation. If it’s “just” a torn meniscus, he might still get in a couple weeks of spring training. However, if Martinez loses most or all of spring training -- or if he opens the 2015 season on the DL -- you can’t help but remember how badly he did in the first half of the 2013 season coming back from missing the entire 2012 season after tearing up the anterior cruciate ligament in this same left knee. He took a long time getting back in gear at the plate, hitting just .228/.273/.305 in the first two months, and just .258/.314/.368 in the first half. Getting that from your DH is potentially crippling; it even led to at least one call to bench V-Mart.
Then Martinez had his huge second half and an even bigger 2014, earning his four-year, $68 million extension for his age-36 through age-39 seasons. That was GM Dave Dombrowski’s biggest move to shore up his offense, and it was a ton of money to give to a DH-first player who has lost significant time to injuries in 2008 (2½ months after elbow surgery) and 2010 (a month with a fractured thumb) in addition to missing 2012 with this same knee. As awesome as he is when he’s on, one thing V-Mart is not is durable, and that doesn’t become less of a problem with age.
If that was all that wasn’t well with the Tigers, you might not worry, but it hasn’t been a great winter for the franchise. The injury is just the latest setback for a Tigers team that was already trying to cling to their increasingly tenuous grasp on AL Central dominance after four straight division wins. After barely fending off the White Sox in 2012 (by three games), the Indians in 2013 (by one) and the Royals in 2014 (by one), the Tigers never delivered on past expectations of dominance in their division or in the AL after their 95-win breakout in 2011. After those narrow margins, the Tigers have to try defending their title after a series of setbacks: They've already seen Miguel Cabrera go under the knife for ankle surgery, and they've lost both Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello from the rotation.
To really score runs to carry a weaker rotation, the Tigers hope that Astros castoff J.D. Martinez didn’t just catch lightning in a bottle last year but can instead conjure up a full season with an OPS north of .850 as a Tiger after his .687 over three years in Houston. They have to hope that Yoenis Cespedes has his best campaign since his rookie season (.861), not the .744 OPS he’s delivered in the two years since. Outside of that, what are the Tigers banking on to get extra offense over what they got last year? There's third baseman Nick Castellanos, a brick afield who didn’t show any improvement in-season at the plate while delivering a disappointing .700 OPS. Shortstop Jose Iglesias and center fielder Anthony Gose might both struggle to get much higher than a .620 OPS.
All of which suggests that the Tigers really can’t afford an extended absence or a slow start from V-Mart, because without him there’s a real danger that their lineup is Miguel Cabrera and the Migettes. (And that's if Cabrera heals quickly and fully.) Baseball Prospectus projects Detroit to score more than 20 fewer runs than last year’s 757, while analyst Clay Davenport pegged them even more harshly, losing more than 50 runs -- five wins in the standings if you work with that simple 10 runs equals a win formula. And that was before V-Mart got hurt.
If this team still had Scherzer and Porcello on top of David Price, and Justin Verlander in his prime and a fully, reliably operational Anibal Sanchez, you might not sweat the offense in the early going because the Tigers could probably count on winning more than their share of low-scoring games. Last year's rotation threw 90 quality starts (six innings or more, three runs allowed or less), which was the third-best tally in the AL; with Scherzer and Porcello gone (and Drew Smyly traded), 51 of those quality starts are gone. How will the rotation replace them? Journeyman Alfredo Simon, who was with the Reds the past three seasons, has to be a solid No. 4 after his first and only good season as a rotation regular, and his second half of 2014 (when he gave up 4.97 runs per nine) has to be something other than an indication that the DH-free NL caught up with him. The Tigers need Anibal Sanchez to throw his first 30-start season as a Tiger in his third full year with the team. And they need Verlander to be the Verlander of old, not last year’s clubbable baby seal edition.
That’s an awful lot of wishful thinking for a defending division champ. Depending on how you look at it, the good or bad news is that nobody’s projected to win 90 games in the AL Central. Or more than 85, for that matter: PECOTA has the Tigers winning at 82-80 and the Indians and White Sox within four games, while Davenport has the Tigers going 83-79 and finishing second to the Tribe in a four-team gaggle split by four games. Neither projection has the Twins in the mix, but that still means the division is anybody’s to win among the other four clubs -- including those pennant-winning Royals.
With margins this small, every setback, no matter how small it might seem now, figures to have an outsized impact on who we might see playing in October. A Tiger-free October? You’d better get used to that idea.