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Martinez still a threat with the bat despite injuries
By NOAH TRISTER
At this point in his career, it seems like Victor Martinez has some sort of ailment to deal with every season.
In 2016, it was a hernia that hardly anyone even knew about until months after the fact.
"I've never been a fast guy in my career, but I know I was better than what I show at the end of the season," the Detroit slugger said recently. "People just didn't know."
Martinez's lack of speed is nothing new, and it can often be chalked up to his age or perhaps the knee problems he's dealt with in recent years. Last year, however, he had another issue - one that didn't become widely known until general manager Al Avila disclosed it shortly before the start of spring training.
Martinez had the hernia operated on during the offseason after it had bothered him for about half the 2016 season.
"I understand the fans got all the right to get frustrated, but trust me, there was no one more frustrated than me," Martinez said. "I was hitting the balls in the gap, to the wall, and barely get to first base."
Despite the injury, last season was a reasonably encouraging one for Martinez. After finishing second in the American League MVP race in 2014, he signed a four-year, $68 million deal to return to the Tigers. Then he hit a career-worst .245 in 120 games in 2015 after having knee surgery before that season. Right away, his contract looked like a burden for Detroit.
But Martinez raised his average to .289 last season with 27 home runs and 86 RBIs, and he managed to play in 154 games. The hernia was tough to play through, but he could still swing the bat, at least.
The Tigers don't need Martinez to be all that speedy on the bases, and they don't need any significant defensive value from the 38-year-old designated hitter. What they do need is for him to keep hitting for as long as possible. Martinez is a career .301 hitter, and from 2005-2014, he finished under .300 in only one season.
His average has dipped over the past couple years, but the power was still there in 2016.
"I'm getting old, man," he joked at the start of spring training last month. "I've got to keep up with - these guys are throwing a hundred now."
The Tigers narrowly missed out on a wild card last year when they lost two of their final three games at Atlanta. Martinez had only two at-bats in that series, since the DH wasn't used. He indicated last month he'd still be willing to play some first base if needed. He started five games there last season.
"If I can help this team somehow, I'll do it," he said. "We'll see what happens. I've got to show that I'm healthy first."
Martinez got off to a 3-for-20 start this spring training for the Tigers. He's part of Venezuela's team for the World Baseball Classic, so he's already under pressure to perform as that tournament begins. David Ortiz showed how effective a DH can be even after turning 40, but for Martinez, age has come with nagging injuries - and even when he was playing almost every day last season, he was limited.
"I was able to swing the bat - that wasn't bothering me," Martinez said. "The problem was to run the bases."
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister
Updated March 10, 2017