DETROIT – Since 2012, the Detroit Tigers have entered each season as the strong favorite to win the AL Central Division. Three different teams finished in second place, each pushing Detroit to the final few games of the season, but the Tigers have been the one constant at the top, carrying the banner for four years in a row and winning four playoff series.
Now, after a first-round exit and an offseason of unanswered questions, that momentum has come to a screeching halt.
The Indians and White Sox have emerged as popular picks to battle for the division title and the Royals are returning from a surprise run to the World Series.
The Tigers, once a sure pick in the American League, have evolved into a mystery. Will their two best players, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, be ready in April? Can the flashy young duo of Jose Iglesias and Bruce Rondon return from season-long injuries and give fans hope for the future?
But there's another important question that nobody is asking. A question that, hidden behind Justin Verlander's bounce back bid and Yoenis Cespedes' sudden arrival, gets lost in the shadows.
Who is J.D. Martinez?
There are a number of ways to definitively answer this question. Martinez is a 27-year-old kid from Miami. He was drafted with the 1,086th overall pick (2006) out of high school and improved to 611th overall (2009) after college. He's an Astros outcast, flat-out released from the last-place organization a year ago Sunday. And in 2014, he was the Tigers' savior.
But with such a scattered resume, the more specific question is 'what will Martinez give the Tigers in 2015?'
In three partial seasons with Houston, Martinez played in 252 games, hitting for a .251 average and clubbing 24 home runs. The outfielder reached base at just a .300 clip and posted a WAR of -1.7 over that span, suggesting that the Astros would have won nearly two more games from 2011-13 without Martinez on the roster.
Last season, Martinez played in 123 games for the Tigers and blew his career numbers out of the water. He posted a .315 average, hit 23 home runs and drove in 76 RBIs. His slugging percentage of .553 dwarfed his .387 career mark and his 4.2 WAR landed him behind just Cabrera and V-Mart on the offense in terms of overall value.
Most cases like Martinez's don't last, as baseball players traditionally regress toward their career numbers after a breakout season. But the Tigers expect a different sequel from Martinez.
Martinez set a high bar for himself during his minor league play, hitting a career .332 over parts of six seasons with 100 doubles and 54 home runs in 343 games. His extra-base power translated into a .942 OPS and he showed great plate discipline for a power hitter, striking out 231 times compared to 117 walks.
When the Tigers saw these numbers, they knew Martinez was a player they could work with.
Another factor working in Martinez's favor is the change he made to his own swing during spring training of 2014. Martinez said he watched film of some of the game's great hitters and tried to emulate the way they controlled the bat through the zone.
That adjustment helped him hit 10 home runs in 17 games in Toledo, then translated into one of the 25 most valuable offensive weapons in the AL.
With that swing, and a track record that reaches beyond three incomplete seasons in Houston, Martinez has staying power in the Big Leagues.
Now the Tigers' slugger is preparing for his encore season by ripping through the Grapefruit League. Spring statistics don't carry much weight when Opening Day hits, but Martinez is enjoying the month of March, hitting .349 with five home runs, nine RBI and an OPS of 1.196.
He'll have to prove himself again this year, but right now, Martinez feels good.
Brad Ausmus will hold a lineup card full of uncertainties when the season starts, but J.D. Martinez won't be one of them.