The 2015 Detroit Tigers didn’t come into this week short on things worth worrying about, but at least they had Victor Martinez. The 2014 American League MVP runner-up was just fine, thank you.

But the key word there is “was.” And for the Tigers, that has the potential to be devastating.

As the Tigers announced on Thursday, Martinez has a left knee injury that’s going to require him to go under the knife:

Not mentioned is how long Martinez’s recovery is going to take, but these tweets from Bob Nightengale of USA Today and Jon Morosi of Fox Sports cast doubt on the possibility of him being ready for Opening Day:

In other words: No, this is not a minor thing. If the odds of the switch-hitting 36-year-old repeating his league-leading .974 OPS and career-high 32 home runs from last season weren’t already long enough, Martinez now has to worry about making a full recovery and getting on track without the benefit of spring training.

The Tigers can hope for the best, but they need to plan for the worst. And in this case, the worst could be pretty bad.

Earlier this week, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said, via, that his roster for 2015 is “basically set.” Since that pretty much goes for the league’s other 29 rosters, now’s a safe time to look at what each team has and project how they could perform in 2015.

And for that, we have actual projections.

The good news is that Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs have the Tigers pegged as the top team in the AL Central. The bad news is that it’s not by much. Both systems barely place them ahead of the Cleveland Indians and not that far ahead of the other teams in the division. And overall, Detroit’s projected record is the worst among baseball’s projected division champs.

This sounds silly based on the Tigers’ recent history as the dominant team in the AL Central, but anyone with objectivity will know the projections have a gripe. As we said at the outset, the Tigers came into the week with plenty of things worth worrying about.

Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello are gone and have been replaced by Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene. Justin Verlander is coming off a year that screamed “Decline!” Miguel Cabrera appears to be damaged goods. J.D Martinez is a huge regression candidate. And as per usual, the Tigers bullpen stinks.

In the middle of all this were two pieces that looked solid. One was David Price, and the other was Martinez. And even with the latter unlikely to repeat his other-worldly 2014, both BP’s and FanGraphs‘ projections were taking it for granted that he would be one of Detroit’s more productive hitters in 2015.

And in fairness, there is a chance he will be. Maybe he can make a quick and strong recovery, step into the box on Opening Day and go from there.

We have good reasons, however, not to take that possibility for granted.

For starters, there’s the reality that Martinez is a 36-year-old former catcher. It’s not advised to expect quick and strong recoveries from players like that. Throw in how Martinez missed the entire 2012 season with a left knee injury, and a quick and strong recovery seems all the more unlikely.

This is not to say he can’t be ready by Opening Day or shortly thereafter, mind you. Really, the bigger question is the one that Jon Morosi posed:

To this end, there isn’t a whole lot of precedent we can turn to. But one particularly scary example is Joey Votto.

In 2012, Votto was on an absolutely roll with a .342 average and a .604 slugging percentage through 86 games. But then he went in for medial meniscus surgery on his own left knee, and he returned to hit just .316 with a .421 slugging percentage. That’s a huge loss of power, one that Votto hasn’t yet fully recovered from.

There’s one example of a hitter brought low by the kind of injury Martinez is dealing with, and he himself doesn’t have the most encouraging history with recovering from serious knee injuries.

When Martinez came back from his year off in 2013, he never really got his power going. As FanGraphs can show, even as he increased his batting average by over 100 points from the first half to the second half, his Isolated Slugging (slugging percentage minus singles) only improved by 17 points.

As’s Anthony Castrovince put it, Martinez’s power was compromised because he was still working to “get his legs back into playing shape.” And throughout the year, it’s not surprising that his power was slightly worse from the left side of the plate. When batting lefty, his surgically repaired left leg wasn’t exactly a sturdy foundation from which to draw power.

Granted, Martinez’s latest knee injury isn’t as serious as the torn ACL that robbed him of his 2012 season. But there could very well end up being a sizable gap between the time when Martinez is healthy and the time when he’s in real playing shape. Those two are different things, after all.

If the price for that is a notable loss of power, a guy who was the Tigers’ most dangerous hitter in 2014 is going to be rendered ordinary for a solid chunk of 2015. In light of the lack of talent separation between them and the rest of the AL Central, that could be a deal-breaker for their entire season.

What could brighten the mood would be Dombrowski pulling a rabbit out of his hat like when he responded to Martinez’s 2012 injury by signing Prince Fielder. That ended up having the desired effect, as Fielder easily replaced Martinez’s production.

But don’t count on this happening. There are no hitters even close to Fielder’s caliber on the free-agent market, and the Tigers are short on the payroll flexibility and the expendable assets they would need to acquire a star-level hitter in a trade.

So what the Tigers should be doing right now is wishing, hoping and/or praying that Martinez can shrug this injury off and immediately start hitting like it never happened.

Because right now, it looks like a season that hasn’t even begun yet has been dealt a killing blow.


Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted/linked.

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