By: Will Burchfield
@burchie_kid

It’s becoming the subplot of the Tigers’ season.

At some point, perhaps if they fall out of playoff contention before the trade deadline, it will become the overriding narrative.

Will the Tigers keep J.D. Martinez?

The slugging right fielder is a pending free agent destined for a serious payday. The Tigers are an overextended ball club looking to scale back payroll. Their marriage doesn’t seem likely to last.

“I would be surprised if J.D. is a Tiger in 2018, I would. I think that has to do with both the possibility of a trade coming up in the next two months or so, and also just where they are budget wise,” Jon Morosi of FOX Sports and MLB.com told 97.1 The Ticket.

The Tigers have the second-highest payroll in the league ($199.75 million) and a number of cumbersome contracts on the books. Martinez’s $11.75 million salary is one of the team’s few bargains, but he’s likely to make somewhere in the realm of $20 to $25 million per year in free agency — in other words, Yoenis Cespedes money.

“You look at J.D.’s production, not just since he’s come back this year, you go back over a couple years, and I expect his representatives to say, ‘Listen, if Yoenis Cespedes is not playing center field for the Mets right now – and he’s not – you take that value component and say Cespedes is a corner outfielder, J.D.’s a corner outfielder. Look at their numbers, they’re pretty similar.’ And Cespedes signed a pretty significant deal with the Mets,” Morosi said.

The Mets gave Cespedes a four-year, $110 million contract in the offseason. Its average annual value of $27.5 million is the second-highest for a position player in MLB history. Martinez may not be far behind.

From 2014 to 2016, Cespedes hit .277 with 88 home runs, 291 RBI and a .833 OPS over 443 games. That production was good for an offensive-WAR of 11.1. In the same time span, Martinez hit .299 with 83 home runs, 246 RBI and a .898 OPS over 401 games. That was good for an offensive-WAR of 12.9.

Yes, we’re overlooking Cespedes’ defensive superiority. But corner outfielders are measured first and foremost by their production at the plate, and Martinez has come to match Cespedes in this department swing for swing. (He’ll also be a year younger when he hits free agency.) If the former keeps hitting the way he has of late, he’s bound to get paid like the latter.

The Tigers already have three players making over $20 million per year in Miguel Cabrera ($28 million), Justin Verlander ($28 million) and Justin Upton ($22.125 million). All three of them are signed at least through 2019. In addition, Victor Martinez and Jordan Zimmermann are both making $18 million per year.

Meanwhile, the Tigers want to get younger and leaner.

“I just think that if the Tigers are talking seriously about the payroll coming down a bit and you’ve got all these guys making around $20 million or more, if you can’t move them you can’t afford J.D.,” said Morosi. “If J.D. is a $20 million-a-year player, thereabouts, they just simply cannot afford him unless they move some serious money off the books and I’m not sure how close they are to making serious moves at the deadline in terms of the bigger-money guys. I don’t think Miguel’s going anywhere, I don’t think Verlander’s going anywhere either. It’s hard to imagine them affording J.D. with their current payroll structure.”

Morosi reported late last month that the Tigers will place all their veterans on the trade market if the team isn’t in contention at the end of June. GM Al Avila suggested otherwise last week, but the fact remains an extensive makeover is coming. It’s just a matter of when.

If it happens to be at the trade deadline, the team’s most valuable asset would appear to be Martinez. Could he yield a similar haul as Yoenis Cespedes, who landed the Tigers Michael Fulmer at the 2015 deadline?

It’s a great question. It would be up there, it would be comparable,” said Morosi. “I think we’re seeing teams obviously regarding their prospects ever more cautiously, I think that is an overall trend in the industry.”

There’s another factor working significantly against the Tigers in regard to a potential Martinez trade. As Morosi pointed out, the team’s payroll is set to exceed MLB’s luxury tax threshold for the second straight year (it’s set at $197 million in 2018), meaning the highest compensation they can receive for their right fielder, should he sign with another team in free agency, is a fourth-round draft pick.

“So, when that’s the case, I think other teams are in a position to somewhat call the Tigers’ bluff or just play maybe a little firmer with them because they can say, ‘Listen, we know your situation, the best you can get for him if you keep him is a fourth-round pick.’ So they can really scale their offer,” Morosi said.

Then there’s this: The market for Martinez might not be as hot as it was in the offseason — and even then the Tigers didn’t find an offer to their liking.

“The tough part about it is two of the teams that were in on J.D. in the winter time, the Mets and the Giants, the Mets are somewhat on the bubble, the Giants are not gonna be buyers right now. So I think that the market has shifted a little bit,” Morosi explained. “There’s certainly plenty of teams that like him but it’s gonna be maybe a different group than what was in there in the offseason when there was a lot of interest and there still wasn’t a deal that really made sense for the Tigers.”

The cards are clearly stacked against them. Maybe, if they look like a legitimate contender when the trade deadline rolls around, they’ll decide to keep Martinez on board for one more push at a World Series title. As crazy as it sounds, that may be the best-case scenario for this team — even allowing for the fact they’d lose arguably their best player in free agency. Because if the Tigers are forced to trade him, the season will be over and the return likely won’t be overwhelming. 

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