The World Series may have ended in bitter fashion for the Detroit Tigers – getting swept in painful fashion by the San Francisco Giants – but their roller coaster season left them with an American League Central crown, an American League pennant, and kept them playing through the very end of October. There are 28 that would trade their seasons in exchange for those banners to hang; Tigers fans would do well to remember that as the sting of the World Series drubbing begins to wear off.
So the Tigers now turn their attention to the off-season, and with that brings a myriad of questions. The first of which is whether or not to extend manager Jim Leyland, who has been working on a series of short-term contracts (he says that’s the way he likes it) and who is without a deal for next season. Leyland has hinted that he’s “still hungry” and wishes to return to the club, and general manager Dave Dombrowski recently said that Leyland is welcome back to the team if he chooses to return, but things might not actually be that simple. In the end, though, it will probably be hard for the organization to pass on another short-term deal with the manager that helped lead the once-downtrodden franchise to two World Series appearances in seven years. Whatever the decision, it will likely come soon.
Detroit is positioned well to maintain their contending team heading into the winter months. With Victor Martinez set to return to action after a season lost to injury, the Tigers have an ideal in-house candidate to fill the designated hitter position that will be vacated by Delmon Young’s impending free agency. Martinez’s return would be a huge boos to the should-have-been-more-potent offense. Young, along with former closer Jose Valverde, will be allowed to walk with a virtual zero percent chance of receiving a contract offer from the Tigers. If either returns to the club it would be at a massive pay cut and in a significantly reduced capacity. Young was the offensive playoff hero, to be sure, but he can’t be trusted to handle an outfield position, and a few weeks of hitting shouldn’t compensate for a season of replacement level production. Even if the Tigers essentially stand pat this off-season, they’ll more or less return their American League Championship team with the addition of Martinez’s potentially All-Star caliber bat.
The Tigers will also have to make free agency decisions on backup catcher Gerald Laird and starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez. Laird would probably be a cheap and easy re-sign, but it will be more difficult to try to shoehorn a market value deal for Sanchez into Detroit’s already bloated payroll. Even allowing for owner Mike Ilitch’s seemingly infinite pocketbook and an upcoming boost from baseball’s new national television contracts, the money Sanchez will likely demand would likely stretch the Tigers to the max and prevent them from filling holes in the outfield and bullpen. It would almost certainly take a trade of Rick Porcello (second year arbitration eligible) and perhaps also Jhonny Peralta ($6 million team option) to make the funds work out. Starting pitching isn’t necessarily a need for the Tigers, they could feel fairly comfortable with a Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly starting rotation heading into the season, but they saw in September and October what can be gained from having a dominating rotation instead of merely a good one.
The Tigers don’t have many holes to fill on the roster, but they will need a back-of-the-bullpen arm to replace Valverde, and they’ll be heavy players in the corner outfield market. They could get by in the late innings by mixing and matching with Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit, Al Alburquerque, Brayan Villarreal, and Octavio Dotel (assuming they pick up his $3.5 million team option), so they don’t need a “proven closer” (a lot of good Valverde did in that regard anyway), but someone like Joel Peralta could shore up their late innings nicely (or be the “closer”) without costing an arm and a leg to sign.
An ideal fit for the Tigers right field vacancy could be Melky Cabrera. He’ll be looking to prove himself coming off of his PED suspension, and he’s unlikely to get the long-term he probably wants, so he’ll likely be willing to settle for a low-cost one year deal. The Tigers probably only want a short-term solution anyway as they wait on the development of prospects Nick Castellanos and Avisail Garcia, either one of which could be ready for a big league role the following year. The Melky-Tigers match seems perfect. Of course, there’s risk involved in signing a former PED user including further suspensions if he uses again and the potential for a decline in performance while off “the stuff”, but the Tigers would have Brennan Boesch (and Avisail Garcia) as insurance should things go south. Neither would likely excel if handed the role, but the two could combine for a somewhat effective platoon if it came to that (and really be no worse off than they are right now).
If not Melky Cabrera, then they’ll likely explore corner outfield options that include some semblance of speed and average-to-above defense (a major downfall of the 2012 team). They don’t need sluggers in the corners with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder on the team, but they could use help near the top of the order with a guy that could get on base (and effectively run the bases while on) in front of the big men.
I doubt the Chicago White Sox will be mistakenly cast aside and ignored by pundits this time, but the Tigers will again enter the season as the prohibitive favorites in the AL Central. Detroit was billed as a sort of “super team” heading into 2012, but, in retrospect, weren’t close to being as good as the 95-100 win team that some made them out to be. But they could be much closer to that mark in 2013. Swapping out Young for Martinez, adding in Sanchez to the rotation for a full year, and upgrading a corner outfield spot could easily add six or seven wins to the team’s total (Delmon Young and the amalgam of poor right fielders lead by Brennan Boesch combined for roughly replacement level production according to FanGraphs).
It’s impossible to predict a big step forward for a team who made it to the World Series, but, barring a bevy of ill-fated moves, the Tigers aren’t likely to take a step back either. World Seires berths and titles may or may not come, but the Tigers appear to be poised to make another run in 2013.