Gradually, and somewhat quietly, Victor Martinez has been regaining his form as a top-flight hitter after missing an entire Major League baseball season because of a knee injury.
In 2011, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Venezuelan hit 12 home runs, drove in 103 runs, and batted .330 for the Detroit Tigers after he signed a four-year, $50 million deal that separated him from the Cleveland Indians.
That was definitely a money’s-worth performance. But last year, when the Tigers added Prince Fielder to their lineup and he and Miguel Cabrera became the dominant hitting twosome in the American League, Martinz was a spectator, sidelined by a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
He missed the Tigers’ run to the World Series and although he returned to start the 2013 season, in the spring Martinez hit as if he was still on the disabled list. He was pretty much the forgotten man of Detroit’s offense.
Whether it was simple rust, lack of timing, regaining full strength in the knee, or anything else, Martinez, who is 34, was a shadow of his former self and not particularly helpful at the plate. For a while his average was hovering around .200. Detroit was able to hold first place in the weak AL Central Division anyway, at least partially due to the fact that the Tigers are loaded with big bats.
Finally, as the weather heated up, so did Martinez. The four-time All-Star is playing at that level again. His overall numbers aren’t stunning, but his recent surge has been Cabrera-like. After Friday’s play Martinez has seven home runs, 49 runs batted in, and was batting .261. If that doesn’t sound like much, it’s best to remember that the average has gone up about 60 points and most of the power indicators have been soaring like a rocket.
Martinez has a 14-game hitting streak following the Tigers’ 7-2 victory over the Texas Rangers. This all comes as a reminder that Martinez has put together four 100-RBI seasons during his career and five 20-homer seasons. When healthy, this guy could always hit. Now it seems as if he is at last fully healthy, rehabbed, and rebuilt with no ill after-effects from the knee.
Add Martinezto the Tigers’ potent offensive mix, complementing Cabrera and Fielder, blending with Torii Hunter and Jhonny Peralta, and Detroit has what would seem to be an unstoppable offense that will carry a team also rich in starting pitching to a division title and possibly a return trip to the World Series.
Of course, Martinez’s resurgence doesn’t do a darned thing to help manager Jim Leyland solve his bullpen woes. Not only do the Tigers still not have a reliable closer (their problem in the playoffs last year), but fall-back guy Phil Coke, who was so dominating in middle relief, is sitting on a 6.18 earned run average at the moment. Coke is not the solution right now.
It’s probably too late to convert Martinez to a closer, even with his strong catcher’s throwing arm, (just kidding) but fixing that relief problem is the real looming challenge for the Tigers coming out of the All-Star break. Detroit will give a kingdom for an arm–or maybe surrender a big bat, if need be, though that’s always risky, too. In the meantime they’ll be singing Welcome Back, Martinez at Comerica Park.