The Detroit Tigers' fanbase erupted when news broke of the club's agreement with J.D. Martinez on a two-year contract extension Monday evening. However, once the smoke cleared, reality set in. Martinez's new deal looks shiny in a headline, but only buys out his last two seasons of arbitration eligibility before he hits free agency following the 2017 season.
Naturally, Tigers fans are somewhat disappointed. Martinez has quickly become a fan-favorite in Detroit, in no small part thanks to his mammoth power and easy smile. Many were hoping that Martinez and the Tigers could have agreed to a longer deal, potentially even as long as five or six years. Martinez himself has said he wants to spent the rest of his career in Detroit, and it feels more genuine than the typical lip service stars give whenever extension talks start.
An agreement on that type of deal was unlikely, though. Martinez will be 30 years old when he reaches free agency, giving him one shot at a big-time payday. Signing a longer deal now likely would have meant leaving millions of dollars on the table, save for a complete collapse over the next two seasons. Martinez's 2015 season proved he is the real deal, and he should be in line to profit on Major League Baseball's ever-expanding revenue line when he reaches free agency in two years.
Contrary to popular belief, the Tigers also benefit from Martinez's shorter deal. The team is already on the hook for $132.12 million in 2018, and that figure goes up if they pick up the contract options of Ian Kinsler or Anibal Sanchez. Outfielder Justin Upton may opt out of his deal after the 2017 season, but that still leaves the Tigers with over $100 million in payroll committed to just four players (not including Kinsler or Sanchez).
Given the uncertainty the future holds for this franchise -- Will the Tigers be contenders by then? Will the Ilitch family still own the team? -- it makes sense to minimize long-term risk whenever possible. Passing on a long-term extension with Martinez now doesn't hurt the team at all in 2016; if anything, keeping his contract to a shorter average annual value (AAV) lessens their luxury tax hit over the next two seasons.
The biggest risk the Tigers face in this scenario is losing both Martinez and Upton in the same offseason. Upton's six-year deal includes an opt out clause after the 2017 season, a clause most expect him to take barring a significant decline in production. Keeping Martinez to a two-year deal ensures that the Tigers will not be saddled with two massive contracts in their outfield in the long term.
There is some wiggle room, though. An Upton opt-out frees up payroll for the Tigers to pursue a long-term deal with Martinez should circumstances allow it in 2017. He is close enough to free agency that a multi-year contract extension in the Evan Longoria mold would not have fallen far below market value. The Tigers may ultimately spend more money if they wait to extend Martinez once he actually hits free agency, but maintaining payroll flexibility is the more savvy move given the makeup of this roster.
Two years is a long time in the baseball world. The Tigers themselves have retooled most of their roster in the past couple seasons, and if general manager Al Avila's first offseason is any indication, they could be in line for more renovation over the next two years. Extending Martinez beyond that window would have been the popular move among fans, but keeping payroll obligations modest is more important for the Tigers right now. Their wait-and-see approach may still pay off for them -- and potentially Martinez -- after all.