With pitchers and catchers reporting to the gleaming baseball oasis of Lakeland, Florida in less than a month, several questions remain for the defending American League Champion Detroit Tigers.
The feasibility of having a rookie, Bruce Rondon, closing down games in 2013, how effective the middle relief and set up man will be at getting that lead to Rondon, and who will emerge from Spring Training as the everyday left fielder (or which pair will platoon out there) are all valid questions heading into spring camp.
These are not the end of the Tigers’ questions heading into Feb. 12–there is also the question on whether Rick Porcello and Jhonny Peralta will even be donning the Olde English D–but one question that never seems to be asked is what type of season that fans and the team should expect from Victor Martinez.
It was just about a year ago when it was announced that Martinez tore his anterior cruciate ligament during offseason workouts in Lakeland, an injury which would force him to miss the entire 2012 season. The Tigers tried to put a good spin on the event, but even the most positive fan had to wonder how a team that hit .237 in two rounds of the 2011 postseason could possibly survive an entire year when one of their top two run producers would be gone.
Of course those concerns were almost immediately washed away when, on Jan. 26, the Tigers stunned the baseball world by signing Prince Fielder after little to no rumored interest between the team and the player had been reported. Tigers’ fans went from saying “No, Victor, no” to “Victor who?” Fans were giddy, discounting Martinez’s incredible .394 average with runners in scoring position throughout 2011.
However, it did not take long for fans to remember Victor’s important role on the team. Most were hoping against hope that he would come back sooner than the Spring Training 2013 target date. As the Detroit Tigers whimpered through much of the 2012 regular season, there was a tiny glimmer of hope in those first few bleak months that Victor could come back in August or September to break the team out of its doldrums and carry it into the postseason. It was not until mid-August that the notion was finally put to bed and early 2013 once again became the target.
How many fans uttered “if only we had Victor” throughout this past fall’s postseason when the team hit .239, including an average well below the Mendoza Line at .159 in the World Series. Yes, I went there–sorry for opening up old wounds from the Fall Classic.
Since the Fielder signing, many of us have looked forward to when Prince and Victor were in the same lineup together–and now, in addition to Miguel Cabrera‘s Triple Crown encore season, the Tigers will have Torii Hunter in the lineup to bolster it even further.
Some Tiger news that may have gone unnoticed earlier this week was the announcement from the team’s head trainer, Kevin Rand, that Martinez will be ready for the start of the regular season. On the surface that’s a good thing. But delving deeper into the story, the stated goal of his rehab and return was always for Spring Training, not April 1 in Minnesota. So, reading between the lines, does this mean his progress is about a month behind where it should be? He is now just getting into running the bases, but is not quite at full speed yet.
Spring Training has a certain romance to it as it offers a welcome distraction from the cold days for Tigers’ fans. It is a reminder of the warm days at the ballpark that will soon be upon us, however exhibition games can often be rather dull for veteran players. Even for fans, the atmosphere, close proximity to the players, and warm Florida sunshine are often more important factors than the game being played on the field.
For Victor, popping into a late spring training game would not only be beneficial for his comeback, but will likely put the minds of some of us Panicky Petes at ease. After all, it would be much better to face his first in-game fastball since October 2011 in 78 degrees and sun, rather than clouds, gloom and the 40 degree weather which will likely be waiting for the Tigers and Twins on Opening Day.
Victor is 34 years old and one could argue that a player of that age is on the downward part of the peak of their career. With a year away from facing live pitchers and being in baseball situations, will he be the same player we have all built him up to be?
Fans who expect him to eclipse or match his .330 average of 2011, a career high, may be disappointed with the results. But, if he hits at or around his career average of .303, its hard to imagine the Tigers not having a more consistent lineup, from Austin Jackson to whoever gets plugged into ninth.
Victor’s presence in the lineup, if healthy, gives everyone just a little more confidence that they won’t be stranded at second base as often as a year ago. While having another career year seems rather remote, a .300 season (or even a .280-.290 season with 15 home runs) will undoubtedly be an upgrade from what the DH position yielded for the Tigers in 2012′s regular season.