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The Detroit Tigers have a Victor Martinez problem

It’s just not the one you’re thinking of.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Minnesota Twins Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The contract former Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch gave to Victor Martinez after his stellar 2014 campaign was always going to become a burden. In the three seasons since, Martinez has been worth -2.3 WAR per FanGraphs. The Tigers have paid him $50 million over that span, and he is owed another $18 million in 2018. But the sunk cost of an ill-advised legacy contract apparently isn’t the only way in which the Martinez deal is still a drag on the franchise.

Major League Baseball players are professional dissemblers. What goes on behind closed doors in a clubhouse rarely sees the light of day, and players do not break the code very often. Fans only occasionally catch a glimpse of the cracks in a team’s esprit de corps. And it’s easy to read too much into body language, or a single incident between emotionally charged players in the heat of the moment.

However, the brawl that broke out between the Tigers and the New York Yankees on August 24 is proving to be one of those times when a single moment speaks volumes about what’s happening behind the scenes. The confrontation between Martinez and Justin Verlander looked, at first blush, like a possible misunderstanding. In retrospect, it was a boiling over of issues that have plagued the Tigers’ clubhouse for more than a year.

At issue was Victor Martinez chatting calmly with Yankees’ catcher Gary Sanchez after Sanchez had, on two different occasions during the melee, unloaded multiple punches to the head and body of both Miguel Cabrera and Nicholas Castellanos as each was tied up on the ground. Afterward, Verlander lit into Martinez in the Tigers’ dugout with gusto, and dismissed his protestations with a look of disgust on his face. Martinez was understandably upset as well.

The sight was all the more striking in that Verlander has rarely bit into a teammate in public at any point in his 12 years in Detroit. It was a bad look for Martinez, and according to Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press, Martinez has had issues with teammates starting late in the 2016 season.

“It also illuminated a reality about Martinez: for the past two seasons, according to those inside the Tigers clubhouse, the 38-year-old designated hitter became an entitled player and a clubhouse problem whose positive influence diminished as his performance declined.”

Fenech goes on to describe an incident a year earlier, on August 27, 2016. After Martinez was ejected for arguing balls and strikes with home plate umpire Mike Everitt, he left Comerica Park before the game ended. This didn’t sit well with some members of the team, and there was apparently a confrontation about that incident with an unnamed team member as well.

“The incident is considered the point when Martinez detached himself as a leader, and the way he handled the matter did not sit well with the clubhouse, a source said.”

Someone may simply have an axe to grind with Martinez, but it certainly sets the confrontation with Verlander in sharp relief as well. The team will downplay any talk of disharmony. But the overall picture isn’t good.

Were Martinez a younger player, issues like these wouldn’t necessarily be a major problem. The Tigers might hope to get through to him. Or they could potentially trade him away. For a veteran, whose skills have atrophied to the point at which he’s a burden in the lineup, there’s really only one solution.

The Tigers have no reason to bring Martinez back to the Tigers next season. Whatever traces of veteran leadership or influence he possessed seem consigned to history, and he doesn’t have a part to play in the Tigers’ future. His plate appearances would be much better spent on a younger player. The Tigers have several players, from Cabrera and Castellanos, to potential 2018 call-up Christin Stewart, upon whom the designated hitter spot could be used with an eye to the future instead of the past.

Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Alex Avila and Justin Upton are gone. Anibal Sanchez is shortly to follow. Ian Kinsler will be the subject of trade rumors this offseason. The big names from the era now crashing down around the Tigers are all gone, save Cabrera. A new manager is about to be tasked with building a new winning culture in the Tigers’ clubhouse, and this slate needs to be cleared in the process.

Victor Martinez may decide to retire after a fine career. He was a very good and highly respected baseball player for well over a decade. But he has made it clear over the past few seasons that he is no longer a productive enough player to roster. Perhaps he realizes it’s time to hang up his spikes and pass on scuffling through another season with a young team likely to lose a lot. But the Tigers can’t give him the final say.

They may decide to try to wait Martinez out to see whether he solves this problem himself, and saves the franchise $18 million next season. But should he choose to give it one last go, which is understandable given the money in play. General manager Al Avila must thank him for his time in Detroit, and cut Martinez loose instead.