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Offseason Report: Detroit Tigers

The Tigers finished the 2013 season with 93 victories and an American League Central crown. They rallied to knock off a pesky Oakland Athletics team in the ALDS, and hung with the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox in the ALCS. For just about any other team, 2013 would have been a rousing success, and a source of optimism for years to come.

Just not for the Detroit Tigers.

2013 was supposed to be the year that Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, and Co. brought the city their first World Series title since 1984. 84-year-old owner Mike Ilitch could have his ring to go along with those he has accumulated as the Detroit Red Wings’ owner. It was supposed to be a breeze through the AL Central, and a cakewalk to the World Series behind the arms of Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez.

So what happened? Prince Fielder’s power numbers went down. Victor Martinez began the season ice cold. The bullpen imploded on several occasions. Timely hitting wasn’t there when it needed to be the most. In the playoffs, Austin Jackson couldn’t swing his way out of a paper bag. The starting pitching was some of the best in playoff history, but the bullpen once again fell flat on its face.

Looking ahead to 2014, the Tigers will look a little different than in the past few years, with new manager Brad Ausmus replacing Jim Leyland. I couldn’t be happier about the Ausmus selection–catchers know the game better than anyone else on the field, and Ausmus was one of the best at controlling a game behind the plate. He is smart, well-respected, and although he has yet to manage a major league game, has a certain air of confidence around him that makes me excited to see him calling the shots. It also doesn’t hurt that Ausmus will walk into a clubhouse with Cabrera, Fielder, Verlander, etc.

In the end, Detroit bowed out, once again short of their World Series goal. The Tigers will surely be contenders again in 2014, as the core of the team will remain intact. However, Dave Dombrowski and the rest of the front office has a lot of work to do to uphold a winning product around their star players.

Free Agents

SS Jhonny Peralta – won’t be resigned or looked at by Detroit, due to newcomer Jose Iglesias and his slick glove.

2B Omar Infante – wouldn’t surprise me to see Infante back in a Tigers uniform in 2014, considering the team’s lack of a second base option moving forward.

C Brayan Pena – has already told the team he will not resign.

IF Ramon Santiago – good utility player will try to get a starting job elsewhere.

MR Jose Veras – Tigers declined his option, making him a free agent. I would have liked to have seen his option picked up, especially considering how much help the Tigers need in the bullpen.

CL Joaquin Benoit – filled in incredibly well as the Tigers’ new closer, but struggled mightily in the playoffs. David Ortiz’s grand slam has left a sour taste in the mouth of Tigers fans about Benoit.

MR Octavio Dotel – Missed almost all of 2013 with injuries, and at 40 years old, is more of a risk than the Tigers are willing to take.

Needs

For the love of everything good in this world, the Tigers need a bullpen. With a proper bullpen, this team would have won well over 100 games, and been playing in the World Series. Benoit did well jumping into the closer role, but that took a key set-up man away from Leyland. Drew Smyly performed well late in the game, but it was hard for Leyland to trust anyone else. Al Alburquerque couldn’t control his slider, Phil Coke was terrible, Bruce Rondon needs a little more work on his control, and the platoon of rookies in the pen were mediocre at best.

Options for improving the bullpen start at the closer position. Three names stand out to me: Joe Nathan, Grant Balfour, and Brian Wilson. Nathan is almost 40 and will want a good chunk of change for 1-2 years of service. Wilson missed almost all of 2013 after Tommy John surgery in 2012, and is a high-risk pickup if Dombrowski wants to go that direction. Balfour has rejuvenated his career as Oakland’s closer, and has saved 62 games in the past two seasons. He too will be expensive, as the A’s refused to offer a $14.1M contract for one season.

My vote: All three will be expensive, but the Tigers need a closer badly. Joe Nathan is coming off of a 43 save, 1.39 ERA season at age 39, and clearly still has the winning formula inside of him. Go with the experience and success of Nathan, and see an instant improvement.

Other needs for the Tigers include second base and left field. Infante looks to be the best option not named Robinson Cano, and has the best combination of glovework and hitting ability. Sign him for a couple of years, and maybe look next offseason for a better option.

Regarding left field, both Andy Dirks and Don Kelly are arbitration-eligible, but that doesn’t mean both will return to Detroit next season. I think Kelly will ultimately be let go in favor of a younger option and a better bat. Dirks will be kept around, but he just doesn’t have the everyday player capabilities. Ausmus will use him in that role if he has to, but would prefer a more viable everyday choice. Some options: Chris Young of Oakland, Marlon Byrd of Pittsburgh, or if they really get greedy, Shin-Soo Choo of Cincinnati. Odds are, the Tigers will resort to using star prospect Nick Castellanos instead of adding another large contract to the books, but you never know with offseason moves.

The final part: Max Scherzer. He will likely claim the AL Cy Young Award (and rightfully so), and with one arbitration-eligible season left until he becomes a free agent, is at his highest value right now. Scherzer’s agent, Scott Boras, is notable for having  his players test the free agent market rather than sign extensions, and with Scherzer at the top of his game, he will demand a lot of money that the Tigers probably are not willing to pay.

Trading Scherzer now would likely reap a few good prospects from a team looking to add a true staff ace, and could even net a starting left fielder or second baseman. If Scherzer does get moved, it needs to be for the right reasons. The Tigers farm system is depleted, and needs a boost. Trading a guy like Scherzer for some quality minor league arms would not be a terrible idea–Dombrowski and Tigers fans would just have to accept moving on without Scherzer, and hope that the prospects pan out in the long run.

Then again, with Detroit so close to winning the World Series the last two years, having another full year of Verlander-Scherzer-Sanchez would almost guarantee another run into late October. Another thing to consider: a Scherzer trade would likely move Smyly into his preferred starting rotation position, opening yet another hole in the bullpen for Dombrowski to fill. Options are out there, but the Tigers need a lot–maybe even too many.

The Tigers have a lot of needs to address this offseason, but however they choose to fill their bullpen, second base, and left field needs, odds are there will be another AL Central Division banner heading to Detroit. Call Tigers fans spoiled, but unless the team heads down Woodward Avenue with the Commissioner’s Trophy next October, another playoff appearance will not be good enough.

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