Gammons Notes: The Impact of the Victor Martinez Injury, Yoan Moncada and Hector Olivera

victor martinez tigers

The Impact of Victor Martinez Injury

The Tigers won’t have any timetable on Victor Martinez’s return until after the operation on his left knee for a torn meniscus Tuesday. But, realistically, they go into spring training in two weeks uncertain when Miguel Cabrera will be 100% following ankle surgery, or how Martinez will recover from this freak injury—which happened as he was throwing in Orlando.

Remember, when Martinez originally tore this knee working out in 2012, it forced them to sign Prince Fielder, and after sitting out that season, it took Martinez a half-season to regain his swing; he batted .258 with a .693 OPS before the All-star Break in 2013, .361 with a .913 OPS after the break. Then last year he had the great year–.335, led the league in on base (.409) and OPS (.974), had 32 homers and only 42 strikeouts and 28 intentional walks, nearly three times Cabrera’s intentional pass totals. Those intentional walks led to the Rick PorcelloYoenis Cespedes trade.

Victor is not only a terrific hitter, he is the leader of the clubhouse, and where two weeks ago the feeling around the club was that with Justin Verlander in peak condition and Cabrera expected back despite the loss of Max Scherzer they thought they would be better than they were when they won 90 games in 2014. Now, they don’t know.

One young pitcher came up last season and struggled in his first start. Remember, it was a team trying to win the World Series, a team that with Scherzer, Verlander, David Price and Anibal Sanchez had those expectations.

After the start, Scherzer pulled the rookie aside and told him, “you should have seen some of my early starts. Don’t worry. You’re going to be fine.”

Martinez called him over to his locker and said, “remember one thing—tomorrow is a new day. Be ready for it.”

Cabrera called him to his locker, told him he would be fine, then said, “you’re a size 13 shoe, right? So am I. See all these shoes in my locker? Anytime you need shoes, just reach in and take them,”

The next day, the rookie opened the door to the clubhouse and Martinez called out to him. “What did I tell you last night?”

“Today will be a new day.”

“Good, kid. Just keep listening. You’re going to be fine.”

That doesn’t go on everywhere. On the Tigers last season it was common. One reason Brad Ausmus said it might have been the best clubhouse he’s ever been around.

Now they privately look at getting to May 1—with, say, a good April from their starters and a hot month from Ian Kinsler, Cespedes, et al—and get Martinez and Cabrera back healthy by the first of May.

What makes this more difficult for this team that has finished first four straight years is that the American League Central may be the deepest division in the game, with only the Twins in rebuilding mode. The Royals got to the seventh game of the World Series, and are still young. The Indians had the best starting pitching in the league the last two months and have improved their defense, as well as their depth with Brandon Moss.

And now the White Sox are threats, with the acquisitions of Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera. They have two rookies to watch carefully this spring because they could be very important as the season unfurls—the first is lefthanded pitcher Carlos Rodon, the third pick in last June’s draft out of NC State, who throws in the mid-90’s with what they call a “dark slider” and showed a changeup he never had to throw in college. He could come up in the pen early, then transition into the rotation.

The other is second baseman Micah Johnson, an elite speed guy—like Billy Hamilton or Dee Gordon—who stole 84 bases two years ago, had some hamstring issues in triple-A last year but could be a force. By the way, how did Johnson prepare for this season? He went back to the University of Indiana and finished his degree, and avidly took up Yoga for his hamstrings. Hot stove, hot yoga.

This could be a really interesting four team race. Even more interesting now.

Cubans Moncada, Olivera

Yoan Moncada isn’t the only Cuban infielder teams like the Dodgers are trying to sign right now; 29-year old Hector Olivera, who plays second third and has been one of Cuba’s best hitters despite some thrombosis issues, has been targeted by a number of teams including the Braves and Marlins and will have a private workout for the Dodgers today in the Dominican Republic, which could lead to an offer. Three different clubs that have scouted him say right now he is a big leaguer.

The hype on Moncada has been remarkable, but some of the estimates on his prospective bonus—$35-40M, which would force the signing team to pay the bonus amount in additional taxes—remains speculative. Moncada is built like a football player. He has tools. But he’s also 19, probably has to start in A ball and spend a year or more assimilating into the American baseball and social cultures.

Teams that can afford to play on Moncada think spending a couple of years developing in the minors will be a good thing. One executive says, “if Yasiel Puig had been able to spend a couple of years in the minors he might have avoided some of the issues he’s encountered. Cross-culturalization is not easy for a lot of young players.”

Incidentally, there were close to a hundred scouts and executives in San Juan this week for the Caribbean World Series. Most of them were there to see the Cuban team, and scouts I talked to were disappointed in the talent level. The gist of opinions were that the only really impressive player was Yulieski Gourriel, the star of the 2006 World Baseball Classic. Gourriel’s parents are government officials, which is why he didn’t defect like his cousin Jose Iglesias, and while he could probably come play in the majors now, he—and his younger brother Lourdes—are signed to play in Japan for the Yokohama Baystars.