The Tigers made history last year. The kind of history that isn’t exactly headline worthy.
Somewhat akin to the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s, Detroit became the sixth baseball team to make three straight League Championship Series appearances without winning a ring during that time.
A few weeks later, the World Series is over, Jim Leyland has stepped down and the Tigers now find themselves with the undeniable need to get better.
After the bullpen debacle in Boston, which is still traumatizing to think about, the main focus of the offseason should be on improving the bullpen. After that, the team should be looking into potential holes at second base, in left field and on the bench.
Here are five ideas to improve the team.
No Tiger fan likes to relive what happened during the games in Boston. The “What If?” game quickly enters the brain. What if a few pitches had been different? What if it was a different pitcher? What if this didn’t happen? What if that did happen? Then it just turns into frustration. Frustration. That is the general, one word summary of fan feelings about the Tigers’ bullpen in the playoffs. If the bullpen had pitched even half as well as the starters did, Detroit would be having a championship parade right now.
Near wholesale changes are needed. Joaquin Benoit, Jose Veras and Octavio Dotel are all free agents. Drew Smyly could find his way into the rotation. Long story short, the bullpen will be different next year.
Luckily for the team, the free agent market is flush with relievers. Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Carlos Marmol, Francisco Rodriguez, Javier Lopez and Eric O’Flaherty are just some of the many relievers on the market.
All would make sense in Detroit.
The first two names on the list have extensive experience in the AL Central thanks to their collective time in Minnesota as well as Crain’s stint in Chicago.
Having multiple relievers with closing experience could be an appealing idea to the Tigers. Should they go this route, Marmol and K-Rod would be worthy additions. Rodriguez brings the added bonus of throwing hard. Something the Tigers have a history of investing in (see Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Bruce Rondon).
Another route, and a somewhat more likely one, is the reliance on in-house options. Detroit has several pitchers that could contribute coming out of the pen. Rondon and Al Alburquerque should have bigger roles next season purely by default, while Luke Putkonen is another name who deserves consideration for a larger role.
Detroit should take a similar approach to Boston’s in terms of their bullpen. And that approach is this: have a deep bullpen. Boston succeeded with one this season. Why not Detroit next season?
Top prospect Nick Castellanos seems close to cracking the big league starting lineup after a successful season at AAA Toledo where he accumulated 56 extra-base hits in 134 games. Whether “close” means this coming season or 2015 remains to be seen.
If the Tigers feel he is ready for next season, they should unleash him on major league pitching by putting him in the lineup every day. The team got by with decent-but-not amazing production from a left field platoon that included Andy Dirks, Don Kelly and Matt Tuiasosopo. So if and when Castellanos hits a rookie wall now and again, the team won’t suffer greatly.
If the team doesn’t feel that their top hitting prospect is ready, they can always go the “Torii Hunter” route and sign a veteran to a short contract to man left field until Castellanos is ready.
That being said, the team’s decision to let Tui leave on waivers may suggest that they are ready for Castellanos to be their Opening Day left fielder.
With Omar Infante a free agent and Hernan Perez seemingly not quite ready to take over everyday duties, the Tigers could need a new second baseman.
Infante will be a viable “Plan B” for teams that strike out trying to get Robinson Cano.
One of those teams, Cincinnati, could have interest. Jon Fay reports that the Reds are interested in trading Brandon Phillips, this could throw Cincy into the mix for Infante should he choose not to resign in Detroit.
The Reds’ reported willingness to trade Phillips could open the door for the Tigers. Detroit could use an extra bat in their lineup thanks to the downgrading of offensive production at shortstop (which is longhand for “Jhonny Peralta’s bat will be missed”). A way to address that need would be acquiring Phillips. It’s well known that the Reds are open to dealing him (purely based on the fact it’s been linked to twice in the last 100 words) and he could be a fit. Last year in Cincinnati, he hit .261 with 18 home runs and 103 runs driven in. While the .261 is a clear drop in production from previous years, he still managed to drive in a career high 103 runs. While Phillips’ batting average dropped, he showed a penchant for driving in runs in a strong lineup. Something he would do extremely well hitting behind Victor Martinez in Detroit. Not only would the current Red extend the Tigers lineup, he would also form a slick double-play duo with current shortstop Jose Iglesias, creating a pairing that would be one of the best in the game.
This potential Tiger could also help the team in October. Phillips’ .325 postseason batting average in his years with the Reds would help make up for a lot of the production the Tigers have lost thanks to Prince Fielder’s prolonged October slump.
Detroit could conceivably take on his entire salary if they feel like winning at all costs. Or could ask Cincinnati to eat some or most of Phillips salary to take him off their hands.
There is a lot to like about a potential Phillips addition to the Tigers. Imagine Phillips hitting behind Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez. It would be an absolute nightmare for opposing pitchers. Not to mention the web-gem potential up the middle with Iglesias.
In a recent article, Paul Swydan suggests the Tigers move on from Alex Avila. First off, Paul should be reminded that Avila has the greatest job security in the world (pop Al Avila is Dave Dombrowski’s right hand man) and shouldn’t be traded.
All jokes aside, the Tigers really should hang on to Avila. While injuries have gradually decreased his All-Star statistical output from 2011, there is still reason to believe Avila can regain that form. Example A (and the only example) is his numbers from the month of September: a robust .343 batting average to go along with a .952 OPS.
The downside is that he hit .139 with a .455 OPS against lefties last year, something the team should fix before next season. Rushing into a platoon may not be the route the Tigers want to go, but signing another catcher with starting experience could be beneficial. Much like the left field situation, Detroit got by with Avila only appearing in 102 games, meaning they would be fine with a reduced workload for Avila.
One target who makes perfect sense is Carlos Ruiz. The longtime Philly is hitting free agency and would be a hand-in-glove fit in Detroit, if you don’t mind the pun.
Ruiz is 34 and due to age, his days of catching an entire season are probably behind him. Detroit could split the playing time between Avila and Ruiz and make out well. Another positive? Ruiz hit .300 against lefties last year.
Signing Ruiz would start to solve another issue for the Tigers: the bench.
Detroit’s lineup never got a real infusion from the bench. Which could also be said: Jim Leyland liked to stick with the same batting order. Which could also be said: Jim Leyland got marginal production out of his bench.
Much like the bullpen, the bench could be significantly different next year. Detroit’s bench was lackluster last season. Don Kelly hit .222. Ramon Santiago bested him, barely, with a .224 clip. Matt Tuiasosopo hit .244, Brayan Pena hit .297 and Hernan Perez hit .197.
But wait! Pena hit well, .297 is pretty good for a catcher, and in general, right?
Yeah, that’s all and well, but the team has told him he won’t be back next year.
Kelly’s .222 output can be forgiven due to the fact that he can play every position. Seriously. If there was a new, tenth position in the center field bleachers, Don Kelly could probably play it.
The Tigers should take a cue from their AL rivals, Cleveland and Boston, and build a strong bench. Everyone and the foul pole saw Boston succeed with their ability to mix and match their lineups with solid contributors off the bench. The Tigers aren’t going to do any mixing and matching, but having a bench that could do that would be a huge plus for the team.