Heading into each respective League Championship Series, the Detroit Tigers felt like the team that most needed to capture a World Championship in 2013.
St. Louis is always in October, Boston already completed a worst-to-first comeback story and Los Angeles had the deep pockets and roster full of young or prime-aged stars. The Tigers were the only team in the group without a solid long-term future.
After their ALCS exit, followed by the sudden retirement of Jim Leyland from the bench, the Tigers must avoid a 2014 hangover in order to squeeze one or two more years out of a championship window that could shut soon after.
To be fair, the 2014 Tigers should be really, really good. With a rotation of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello all under team control for next season, Detroit will boast one of the best rotations in the game. When healthy, the Miguel Cabrera-Prince Fielder combo is among the biggest and best in any order in baseball. Until someone dethrones that star power atop the AL Central, pencil Detroit in for a postseason trip.
Yet, the window won't stay open forever. With trade rumors already swirling around Scherzer's name, Sanchez's inability to pitch full seasons, the potential of Prince Fielder's rough 2013 becoming the start of a decline and Miguel Cabrera entering the wrong side of 30, Detroit's window to finally capture a World Series could be smaller than expected.
In order to maximize that window, the franchise will need to shake off their ALCS loss and make 2014 another big year in the regular-season win column.
Here are four ways they can accomplish that goal.
1. Hire a manager the players want
Jim Leyland's departure was surprising, but hardly shocking. The legendary manager will turn 69 in December and has been in Detroit since 2006. If the front office and ownership brass wasn't keeping a short list of names handy for when this day arrived, shame on them.
As Detroit enters the managerial carousel, the most important attribute of their new manager shouldn't center around philosophy as much as personality. Yes, the Tigers need to find the right fit for this particular group more than they need to unearth a baseball genius.
With a roster that is built to win right now, the interview process conducted by general manager Dave Dombrowski will be among the most interesting subplots to this upcoming offseason. The right candidate can be experienced or inexperienced, well-versed in numbers or poised to lead on gut feeling, there for the long haul or ready for one last contract.
The details won't matter if he doesn't mesh with the current 25-man roster and extract a big 2014 season from the group. Some teams have the luxury of letting a manager grow into a job. This Tigers team, attempting to avoid a hangover in 2014, doesn't have that luxury.
2. Keep Max Scherzer unless an outrageous offer hits the table
According to Joel Sherman of The New York Post, the Tigers are unsure what to do with the likely 2013 AL Cy Young winner. On the surface, it's hard to imagine Detroit trading away a 29-year-old strikeout king coming off a career year. After winning 21 of 24 regular-season decisions, Scherzer's 34 strikeouts in 23.1 postseason innings was part of the strength of Detroit's team.
On the other hand, Scherzer will be a free agent at the conclusion of the 2014 season. If he posts numbers anywhere close to his 2013 season (214 IP, 2.90 ERA, 240 K), he'll be in line for a contract in excess of $20 million per season. With Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder all making at least that in annual salary, the Tigers would be pushing $100 million in payroll commitments to four players at the start of the 2015 season.
There's a precedent for exploring the market, but unless the team is blown away with an offer that makes the team younger, cheaper and still a viable contender in 2014, it doesn't make sense to remove a dominant pitcher from a rotation gunning for a title.
3. Enter the Jacoby Ellsbury sweepstakes
Yes, offering Ellsbury a contract in excess of $100 million would defeat the purpose of trading Scherzer in order to keep financial flexibility in 2015 and beyond. But the potential to form the best lineup in baseball and keep the Scherzer options open may be too much to pass up for Dombrowski.
Despite scoring 796 runs, the second-most in baseball behind Boston, Detroit did not receive great production from leadoff hitter Austin Jackson. While his .337 OBP was far from bad, it represented a 40-point dip from his 2012 output, per Baseball-Reference.com. Replacing the enigmatic and inconsistent Jackson atop the order with Ellsbury would give Detroit this potential top five in their everyday lineup:
2. Torii Hunter
3. Miguel Cabrera
4. Prince Fielder
5. Victor Martinez
Furthermore, signing Ellsbury would give their new manager the option of playing either Jackson or Ellsbury in Comerica Park's spacious left field. With both players possessing elite defensive capability in center field, the Tigers could have three former center fielders, along with Hunter in right, roaming the outfield at once.
Financially, this would likely end Max Scherzer's tenure in Detroit in the near future. If the team went all-in for 2014, they could afford Ellsbury's big deal and Scherzer's final year before free agency. If Dombrowski decided to explore trade options for Scherzer, he could get younger in the rotation or behind the plate via trade.
Before dismissing this idea as hot-stove fodder, remember that Ellsbury is represented by Scott Boras. At the conclusion of the 2012 season, five Boras clients were on Detroit's active roster. When there's a need and a relationship between agent and team, big deals can happen.
4. Give the closer job to Drew Smyly
In Detroit, the solution to roster issues is to spend money. When Victor Martinez went down with a torn ACL prior to the 2012 season, owner Mike Ilitch spent $214 million on Prince Fielder's bat. When right field was a black hole heading into 2013, the team gave a two-year deal to a 37-year-old Torii Hunter.
During the early part of 2013, the bullpen was a sore spot for Detroit. Even though Joaquin Benoit solidified the closing role, the grand slam off the bat of David Ortiz in the ALCS could leave open concerns about him as the closer in 2014.
Instead of spending big money on free-agent relievers like Grant Balfour or Edward Mujica, the team should give Drew Smyly a chance to claim a bigger role in their bullpen.
The following chart compares Smyly with four well-known closers in 2013. Before scrolling down, try to decipher which stat line belongs to the current Tigers reliever:
Baseball-Reference.com and Fangraphs
If you guessed Player D as Smyly, you know what the Tigers left-hander brings to the table. The rest of the quintet:
Player A: Jonathan Papelbon
Player B: Chris Perez
Player C: Fernando Rodney
Player E: Addison Reed
As you can see, the difference between a proven closer and Smyly isn't big enough for the Tigers to invest major dollars, especially when Scherzer could be dealt for monetary reasons, into a free-agent arm.