The thought of bringing home JD “Just Dingerz” Martinez for a final short run with the Detroit Tigers has been on the back of a lot of Tigers fans’ minds this offseason. In isolation, it’s certainly an attractive idea. His shocking run from 2014-2017 after getting ditched by the Houston Astros and picked up for nothing on the waiver wire was one of the highlights, one of the final highlights as it turned out, of the past decade of Tigers baseball. The club clearly needs a lot of offensive help, it would be fun to see Martinez don the Olde English D one more time, and he’s a simple, low cost, plug and play option that improves the offense immediately.
The 36-year-old Martinez is also coming off a pretty good year with the Dodgers, who have acquired a new designated hitter, as you may have heard. The obvious answer as to why this is unlikely is that Scott Harris and Jeff Greenberg don’t look like they want a regular designated hitter at all as a matter of team building philosophy. But since it’s been a popular topic of conversation for a few days with articles by Evan Woodbery at MLive and elsewhere, let’s wade into the Martinez idea a little. Exploring it leads right back to the central questions about the Tigers entire posture this offseason and their general plans in 2024.
The Tigers already have plenty of DH candidates
The issue with adding a designated hitter in general starts with the Tigers’ outfield and extends all the way down to the Triple-A level of their organization. We liked the trade for veteran corner outfielder Mark Canha quite a bit. The Tigers didn’t do a lot to upgrade the offense this offseason, but this was a shrewd bit of work in targeting an organization with a payroll crunch in the Milwaukee Brewers. They added a quality veteran player for just a relief prospect without making any long-term commitments. No long-term commitments is clearly the over-riding theme of the Tigers’ offseason to date.
With Canha in-house, the Tigers have a starting outfield of Riley Greene, Parker Meadows in center field, and some combination of Kerry Carpenter and Canha playing corner outfield and designated hitter. Their fifth option, Akil Baddoo, is a solid player against right-handed pitching who adds an element of top-tier speed to the offense and can handle center field. Baddoo offers a bit of insurance in the event Meadows struggles at the plate.
Meanwhile, the Tigers clearly don’t want to push Greene defensively as he returns from UCL surgery on his non-throwing right elbow. So while Baddoo is the odd man out as the Tigers fifth outfielder, he does have two options remaining and an important role to play in the Tigers overall 40-man roster.
We haven’t even gotten to Matt Vierling yet, and there are already five outfielders in play. Vierling seems destined to play a lot of third base as a result, and right now, some combination of Andy Ibañez, Zach McKinstry, and top hitting prospect Colt Keith are going to take up the remainder of the roster. Spring training will sort a few questions out, but Spencer Torkelson and Javier Báez are going to play first base and shortstop everyday, and then they’ll carry Jake Rogers and for now, Carson Kelly as Rogers’ backup.
Fitting JD Martinez, or a corner outfielder like Jorge Soler, for example, in there regularly would one of Canha or Carpenter is on the bench on any given day. The Tigers affinity for pinch-hitting was well noted last season, but limiting each of them to 400 plate appearances between the outfield and DH doesn’t really seem likely to entice Martinez to come back to Detroit.
Hitting prospects without a defensive home
The other complicating factor is the fact that the Tigers do have quite a few bat first prospects closing in on the major leagues. Colt Keith’s positional home is still in question despite the fact that he’s just about major league ready with the bat. Justyn-Henry Malloy and Justice Bigbie are two more quality hitting prospects who will be stationed at the Triple-A level, but don’t provide much in the way of defensive value either. They’ll be joined this season by Jace Jung, who is more of a sure thing defensively, at least at second base, and is becoming a serious power threat in his own right.
With only one solid move to improve the offense so far this offseason, the Tigers front office is pretty clearly banking on one or more of those young players making an impact. That’s a reasonable bet, particularly in Keith’s case, but the trade-off may be that they’re a bit hamstrung defensively and have to artfully ride the hot hands all season and hopefully benefit from a deeper bench in the pure hitting department. Adding a dedicated DH to the mix complicates those plans as well and makes it a lot more difficult to work their top hitting prospects into the offense over the course of the season.
Of course, the upside of signing JD Martinez, is that you then have JD Martinez in your lineup, and some other problems melt away or at a minimum become far less pressing.
In the end, considering a JD Martinez signing feels like it would have to be accompanied by a grander design more worthy of a gambler like Jerry Dipoto of the Mariners. The Tigers farm system isn’t quite in the top five tier, but it’s definitely what I’d describe as a very tradeable system.
They have a handful of top guys they are probably off limits, but beyond top prospects Jackson Jobe, Colt Keith, and Max Clark, they have a deep mix of pitching prospects and hitters just beyond those three either in the top 100 nationally or just outside it to work with. Some of those prospects will develop into solid major league players, but the odds say that a solid majority will not. Depth is great, but at some point the farm system needs to be used for trades or they’re simply going to stall out and devalue some of these players.
Were the Tigers able to deal for say, a good everyday third baseman over the next month, presumably using at least one of their top hitting prospects, then signing a JD Martinez on top of such a deal might make a little more sense. There just isn’t an obvious deal to make, and trading prospects for major league talent is less common this time of year when other teams are still able to hope on the season ahead. Those sorts of swaps are much more plausible at July’s trade deadline.
The Tigers have continued to add a little depth over the past week. They re-signed lefty slider specialist Andrew Vasquez to a minor league deal with an invite to spring camp. They also got Triple-A depth catching Donny Sands back on a minor league deal after he was DFA’d just before Christmas. Sands moved to first base and designated hitter upon the promotion of top catching prospect Dillon Dingler in August. Dingler will continue to get most of the reps, and Sands will have to compete with veteran minor league signing and spring non-roster invitee Anthony Bemboom for the backup job in Toledo.
These are the kind of moves we can expect the rest of the way. They’ll add a few more project arms via claims and minor league signings. Maybe they’ll find a light-hitting shortstop with plus defense to shore up the roster in the event Javier Báez falls apart completely and has to be released. Expecting any more than these sorts of moves is probably foolhardy right now.
Waiting for the trade deadline
Adding JD Martinez would be fun, and finding a big trade for a good infielder would be great, but those ideas just don’t seem to fit the Tigers’ plans this offseason. This all assumes Martinez is even willing to return on a one-year deal in the first place, of course. It just feels like adding a pure hitter to the roster would only make sense in tandem with a series of other moves, making the likelihood even lower.
The Tigers are going to take this group into the season, evaluate their young hitting prospects for another few months, and hopefully get out to a good start to the season for the first time under AJ Hinch’s leadership. A strong start significantly increases the likelihood of a bigger sort of deadline deal, and the extra time to see Colt Keith, Justyn-Henry Malloy, Justice Bigbie, and Jace Jung will help them more accurately evaluate those players’ futures with the club, and whether some part of that group is better used as trade chips.
Other than Keith, who is more on a par with Torkelson and Greene in terms of pure hitting ability as prospects, the rest are still just solid prospects with a limited chance to become everyday major league players. Over the next year, we’re going to see how accurate the new front office’s assessments are in figuring out who to trade and who to keep and develop.
At some point, the Tigers are going to have to make a big trade. There are few regular playoff contenders who haven’t pulled off a major signing or a big trade. They don’t seem interested in competing for top free agents, and so finding that trade and doing a better job assessing which of their own prospects to deal or keep than the team they’re trading with is a key assignment as a front office over the next year.
The obvious model trade to acquire a really good player is hunting for one as a team is looking to cut payroll or cash in on a player nearing free agency. Those sorts of deals are usually more likely in July than in January. It may feel like stalling a bit, but Harris and Greenberg giving this roster and this farm system another three months should sort out some of these questions with their younger players and provide a clearer direction.
We’d love to see the Tigers surprise us with something over the next month, but it just isn’t happening. They’ve left themselves in a pretty good place with five weeks left until pitchers and catchers report. They have talent, but it’s also a bit of a tangled roster with a lot of questions to answer this spring. That seems to be the way they want it right now.