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How much is Victor Martinez worth to the Tigers?

Victor Martinez would like to remain a Tiger, and the Tigers would love to have him back. But at what cost?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

How much is Victor Martinez worth to the Tigers?

Victor Martinez was arguably the best hitter in the American league in 2014. His weighted on base average (wOBA) of .412 led the league. He was second only to Jose Altuve of the Astros with a .335 batting average, and second only to White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu with a .565 slugging percentage. His strikeout rate of just 6.6% was easily the lowest among all qualified hitters in the major leagues, and he led the league in on base percentage, getting on at a .409 pace.

Martinez posted a career best 32 home runs, which led the Tigers, and added 103 RBI. He led the team in homers, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS and wOBA. Martinez bats right, he bats left. He hits right handers, he hits left handers. He hits for average, he hits for power. He just hits and hits and hits.  It would be difficult to imagine where the Tigers would have been without Victor Martinez in their lineup. 

Yet, that is a mental exercise that the Tigers’ front office will have to go through as they consider how much they will be willing to pay Martinez to remain a Tiger. He will be the best hitter on the free agent market this winter, once the off season begins, unless an agreement is reached quickly. Martinez has said that he wants to remain a Tiger, and the Tigers surely want him back, but at what cost?

Martinez is finishing up a four year, $ 50 million contract that paid him $ 12 million for the 2014 season. Three of those seasons were very productive. One season was missed completely with a torn ACL. He is only the seventh highest paid Tiger, but that is hopefully about to change, as he is eligible for free agency immediately at the conclusion of the World Series, no later than October 29th.

The club will have until five days after the World Series to decide whether to make qualifying offers to their own free agent players. The qualifying offer, which is about $ 15.3 million for one season, would ensure that the club receives a supplemental first round draft choice as compensation should Martinez decline the offer and sign with another team. Making the offer should be a no brainer for the Tigers, and declining the offer should be a slam dunk for Martinez, who will be able to cash in on a great season and receive a lucrative multi year contract.

An extra first round draft choice is nice. But Martinez is far more valuable. A draft pick could land the next Nick Castellanos, or Drew Smyly. Or it could get them the next Kyle Sleeth or Jacob Turner, or Ryan Perry.

How much will it take to keep Martinez in Detroit? Perhaps the salary is not so much a question as how many years the team is willing to guarantee. Martinez has said that this next contract will probably be his last, and that he doesn’t anticipate playing past age 40. He will be 36 in December. That would seem to indicate that he is looking for a three or four year contract.

Give it to him. Three years, certainly. Four years is pushing it, but if the alternative is that the Tigers are without his bat in the lineup next season, they will not be able to replace him. At least not with just one player, so that window of opportunity that we’ve been hearing about might just be closed as Martinez walks out the door. Owner Mike Illitch’s dream of bringing a World Series title back to Detroit would take a serious hit.

Martinez is not likely to repeat his offensive numbers at the plate over the next three seasons. As our friends at Lookout Landing pointed out, "since 1920, only 23 seasons by players 35-years-old or older have been more productive in terms of wRC+ (and only 10 of those seasons were put together by fellas not named Barry, Babe, or Ted)."

Not many players past age 35 receive multi-year contracts that are that lucrative. The Tigers gave Torii Hunter $ 26 million for two seasons at age 37.  Hunter is also a free agent after this season. The Yankees just gave Carlos Beltran $ 45 million for three years at age 36. They also gave Derek Jeter $ 51 million for three years, but he’s, you know... Derek Jeter. Martinez should be able to get something in the $ 45 to 50 million range over three years. There would be no harm in adding a club option fourth season, or even a vesting option that becomes automatic upon certain health targets being met.

While plenty of players have received multi-year contracts of $ 17 million per season or more, no designated hitter has reached that salary level. Martinez is the 10th highest paid designated hitter in major league history. David Ortiz is slated to become the highest paid DH in 2015 with a $ 16 million salary, breaking his own record set in 2012 at $ 14.575 million. "Big Papi" will be 39 in November.

Highest Paid Designated Hitter Contracts

Player Seasons Age Avg Salary WAR*
David Ortiz 2015 39 $ 16M ___
David Ortiz 2012 36 $ 14.6M 2.9
Travis Hafner 2008- 2012 35 $ 14.3M 0.8
Jim Thome 2003- 2008 38 $ 14.2M 0.5
Gary Sheffield 2007- 2009 41 $ 14.0M 0.3
Adam Dunn 2011- 2014 34 $ 14.0M -2.9
David Ortiz 2007-11,13,14 38 $ 13.0M
Victor Martinez 2011- 2014 34 $ 12.5M 5.3

* WAR is r-WAR in the last season of the player's contract

The Tigers signed Gary Sheffield at age 38 to a three year extension prior to the 2007 season, for $ 14 million per year. He had been a perennial all star with the Yankees before a wrist injury sidelined him for his final season in New York. After one good season in Detroit, Sheffield hit .225 with a negative WAR and was released in spring training before the final year of his contract. He finished out the year with the New York Mets, providing minimal value in the outfield.

Magglio Ordonez, one of the first big name free agents to sign with Detroit in the Dombrowski era, received a five year contract worth $ 75 million that took him through his age 35 season. Then, there were two club options worth $ 18 million and $ 15 million which vested based on plate appearances for his age 36 and 37 seasons. The first option vested after the 2009 season, which saw Ordonez slump badly, but hit for tremendous average in September. The second option was declined and the club signed him to a one year, $ 10 million contract. He was injured much of the season, and retired at season’s end.

No position player has gotten a multi year contract after age 35 for more than three seasons at over $ 10 million per season since Jorge Posada got four years in 2008. Only Jeter has gotten a multi year deal with an average annual value above $ 15 million at least since Manny Ramirez got $ 45 million for two seasons, also in 2008. Martinez finds himself in rare territory.

There is a big risk in giving Martinez more than a three year contract. Odds are that he will not be worth the salary in a fourth year or beyond. Maybe not even in a third year. But for Mike Illitch and the Tigers, the future is now. Their star players are not getting any younger. David Price, Rick Porcello, and Don Kelly are scheduled to become free agents after the 2015 season. The competition in their division is only getting stronger.

In Martinez’s favor is the fact that there will be no shortage of teams interested in his services. The Seattle Mariners are desperate for a DH. The Chicago White Sox would love to have Martinez on board. In the Tigers’ favor is the fact that Victor wants to win, and he wants to be in Detroit. When asked about his chances of returning, he said "they know", referring to Tigers’ management. Meaning, they know that he would like to stay, but is looking for a commitment for the team to lock him up for the rest of his career.