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The AL Central plot thickens after Victor Martinez's injury

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Second knee injury in four years for Tigers star casts doubt over early-season availability and 2015 effectiveness

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time in his Tigers career, Victor Martinez has suffered an offseason knee injury. This one is less severe in and of itself, but its ripple effect might have more dramatic repercussions for a Detroit Tigers team that's trying to ward off a stouter cast of division rivals.

The Tigers announced on Thursday that Martinez tore his left medial meniscus while working out, and it will require surgery that will jeopardize his Opening Day availability at the very least. The club said it will know more after Dr. James Andrews performs the surgery on Tuesday.

Compared to the last time he injured his knee over the winter -- who is in charge of his program, anyway? -- this news could be worse. Back in January of 2012, he needed a microfracture surgery to repair the medial and lateral menisci in his left knee as well as an ACL reconstruction procedure. The dual operations cost him all of 2012, while this operation may only cost him six weeks.

But while the recovery was complicated, the short-term solution wasn't. But Tigers owner Mike Ilitch gave Dave Dombrowski license to find a replacement, and free agency offered the best possible option in Prince Fielder. The Scott Boras client's patience paid off in the form of a nine-year, $214 million contract.

This time around, though, free agency offers no such quick fixes (Dayan Viciedo?). And reading the reaction from Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, I wonder if they're anticipating worse than the minimum time off.

"I talked to him before he actually got the MRI," manager Brad Ausmus said. "He was concerned, and he sounded down initially. Then I talked to him after the MRI, and obviously he was upset.

"He was audibly shaken. I can't say visibly shaken because I didn't see him." [...]

"Losing a guy like Victor for any length of time is a big blow," Ausmus said. "Losing that bat, especially when he's really the one power threat from the left side facing a right-handed pitcher, [is tough].

"We're hoping for the best, but as last season showed, losing [reliever Bruce] Rondon and [shortstop Jose] Iglesias for the season, sometimes things are out of your control."

The article details the difference between meniscus procedures -- a clean-out is the 4-to-6 week deal, while a full reattachment requires a recovery of two to three months. But Martinez's case isn't so cut-and-dried because he's now 36, and that knee has seen some things. Even a clipping could require an extended rehab period of up to eight weeks, and then there's the case of Ryan Howard:

Though there are examples of guys making a full recovery from medial meniscus tears within a six-week timetable, there's also the recent example of a 33-year-old Ryan Howard, who had his surgery in July 2013, was given a six-to-eight-week recovery path and wound up enduring setbacks that forced him to miss the rest of the regular season.

At the same time, Miguel Cabrera is recovering from his own surgery to remove bone spurs and repair of stress fracture in his right ankle. The start of his spring training will be delayed, although he should be back for or around Opening Day if everything goes well. Considering he hit .313/.371/.524 on one leg last year, it seems like it'd take a meteor strike to change his status to "doubtful," but a healthy Martinez would have made it easier to ease Cabrera back into action.

Instead, Martinez is now the bigger question mark, especially since he hasn't even started the first year of a four-year, $68 million deal, which makes Adam LaRoche's two-year, $24 million contract with the White Sox look like the far wiser choice. Even if Martinez comes back to outperfom LaRoche, this is quite the sober introduction to a contract that required throwing caution into the wind.

That contract could be a double whammy, too, because Dombrowski's offseason featured an uncharacteristic amount of compromise after the Martinez signing, when that contract could have just as well signaled one last spree. The acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes is more important now, but they sent away Rick Porcello in the process. They also had to let Max Scherzer go, and they're counting on bounce-back seasons to improve the bullpen.

That brings us back to James Shields, who still lacks a known leading suitor even though he's supposed to sign this week. He's not going to replace Martinez's bat, but for the first time in several years, the Tigers can't be particularly picky about upgrades.