With the regular season winding down and playoff hopes and dreams being dashed or clinched daily, my mind turns to the hope all fans share: the offseason.
It is the offseason where your team fixes the vexing spot in the lineup, or finds the solid third, fourth or fifth starter, or the reliable bullpen arm to preserve wins. The offseason is more than just free agency, it is the promise of young relatively unknown players rising to the occasion and becoming stars at the major league level.
With the Tigers steadily moving towards their first division title in 24 years, I want to take a few minutes to look at the season and the future to determine what the Tigers must do to continue to push for division titles and become a perennial World Series contender.
First, we need to look at the season as it is winding down to see the areas where Detroit needs to improve next year.
First Base—Miguel Cabrera (.332, 26 HR, 95 RBI) is having an off year by his standards, but by everyone else's, he is having a great year. The Tigers have no need to search for a replacement. Cabrera should continue to anchor the offense for the next several years.
Second Base—Second (as a team .249, 13 HR, 60 RBI) has once again been a revolving door in Detroit. An alarming seven players have started 15 or more games at second this year for Detroit. Ryan Raburn is not the answer as his defense is just not good enough. Also, he has to find a way to hit at least close to his second half if he wants to stay with the team next year. The Tigers absolutely need to find an everyday answer at second.
Shortstop—Jhonny Peralta (.307, 18 HR, 77 RBI) is having a career year for the Tigers. He's been batting seventh and has provided great punch and production for the bottom half of the order. Peralta's biggest weakness was his defense coming into this season, but he has been rock solid at short this year with better-than-expected range. No immediate need for a shortstop, Peralta is under contract for next season and I wouldn't be surprised if he re-ups with Detroit again.
Third Base—Wilson Betemit (.292, 3 HR, 15 RBI with Detroit, .284, 6 HR, 42 RBI overall) has been an upgrade offensively but has been a substantial step down defensively. Brandon Inge (.190, 2 HR, 20 RBI) has been awful offensively and has been solid if not very good defensively. Inge is under contract next year. Betemit has been an upgrade on offense, but doesn't have the range Inge has. Betemit is not under contract after this season, so Detroit will have to decide what it wants to do with him and Inge. The long-term answer for the hot corner is in the minors: Nick Castellanos.
Right Field—Magglio Ordonez (.242, 5 HR, 28 RBI) and Brennan Boesch (.283, 16 HR 54 RBI). Sadly for Tigers fans, Magglio (so far) has not been able to rediscover his power swing after recovering from ankle surgery. After the Tigers acquired Delmon Young, Boesch has taken over right field and has been very productive. Before his season ended due to a thumb injury, Boesch was on pace to hit 20+ home runs and bat better than .280. I doubt Maggs will be brought back. Boesch will probably be the Tigers' right fielder for the next five to eight years.
Left Field—Brennan Boesch and Delmon Young (.312, 3 HR, 17 RBI with Detroit, .276, 7HR, 49 RBI overall). Young has been just what the Tigers ordered. He has provided pop for the third spot in Jim Leyland's batting order. Overall, Young hasn't had an overly spectacular year, but I think he is closer to the player he was last year. The Tigers need to decide what they want to do with Young—he is under contract next year—but they will also have to decide what they want to do long-term.
Center Field: Austin Jackson (.257, 9 HR, 42 RBI) has suffered from a bit of a sophomore slump. He has a lower batting average on balls in play than he did last year. Overall I think Jackson is probably closer to a .280 hitter, with developing power. Where Jackson's biggest asset to the Tigers is his defense. Jackson probably saves 30+ runs a year. He also provides speed at the top of the line up.
Catcher—Alex Avila (.301, 17 HR, 69 RBI) has surprised just about everyone with the polish he has shown on both offense and defense. In Avila, the Tigers have their catcher for the next 10 years. They need to decide if Omir Santos is the answer as the third catcher at AAA if/when Victor Martinez is unable to spell Avila.
DH—Victor Martinez (.326, 10 HR, 89 RBI) has been the productive bat the Tigers needed behind Miguel Cabrera. Martinez's power numbers have been reduced because of Comerica's size, but he has been a productive RBI bat behind Cabby. As long as Martinez is able to stay healthy, he will also be Avila's primary backup.
Starters—Justin Verlander (22-5, 2.44 ERA), Doug Fister(4-1, 2.64 ERA with Detroit, 7-13 3.17 ERA overall), Max Scherzer (14-8, 4.33 ERA), Rick Porcello (13-8, 4.87 ERA) and Brad Penny (9-10 5.13 ERA). Justin Verlander should win the Cy Young this year and will be a contender every year for that award. Doug Fister has solidified the Tigers rotation this season and is the most consistent starter outside of Verlander.
Both Scherzer and Porcello are still very young starters who still have their inconsistent moments. Both should continue to improve with time and experience. Penny has been pretty much what the Tigers thought he would be. He gives them a legitimate chance to win every time he takes the mound.
Of the five starters, Penny is the only one not under contract next year. The Tigers will most likely look to fill Penny's role with someone from their farm system.
Bullpen—Outside of Jose Valverde (42-42 saves, 2.49 ERA), the bullpen has had its struggles this year. Joaquin Benoit (4-3, 3.29 ERA) struggled to start the year, but improved as the year progressed. If Al Alburquerque (5-1, 2.15 ERA) is healthy, the Tigers have an elite arm who is excellent when inheriting runners (59 strike outs in 37.2 innings). Duane Below (0-2, 4.15 ERA) has been a pretty decent long reliever. When the experiment with Phil Coke (2-9, 4.51 ERA) ended, the Tigers got the reliable left-hander they needed for their 'pen.
Two youngsters took steps forward this year as well, Ryan Perry (0-0 5.64 ERA) and Daniel Schlereth (2-1, 3.64 ERA). The Tigers need the youngsters to continue to gain consistency moving forward. In the case of Perry, the Tigers need him to rediscover the ability to miss bats, as he has struggled with location.
For the 'pen to be a strength, the Tigers absolutely must resign Valverde to an extension and they must see improvement from their young guys. I don't think the Tigers will go after an established reliever this offseason.
I recently read in article on ESPN by Dan Szymborski, which suggested the Tigers would be best served by spending money on improving their rotation. I strongly disagree with this idea for two main reasons. First, Justin Verlander and Doug Fister are consistent starters who give quality outings nearly every time out. Second, the Tigers have enough young arms for the final three rotation spots. Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Jacob Turner, Andy Oliver, Drew Smyly and Fu Ti Ni are all starters with varying levels of success.
Szymborski suggested the Tigers should look primarily at two free agents to be: the Texas Rangers' C.J. Wilson (15-6. 3.13 ERA) and former Tigers starter Edwin Jackson (11-9, 3.78 ERA).
While I could understand and even make an argument for signing Wilson, signing Jackson makes zero sense. First, the Tigers think Scherzer has more upside because they traded Jackon for Scherzer. Second, it's almost universally agreed that Turner is a front-line starter.
Also, the Tigers already have four right-handers in their rotation and if they were to add another starter, a left-hander makes far more sense.
Wilson would make sense only because the Tigers could immediately plug him into the No. 2 spot in the rotation with Fister at 3 and Scherzer and Porcello at 4 and 5 respectively. If they went this route, the Tigers would most likely trade either Scherzer or Porcello to make room for Turner.
Looking at the 2011 Tigers, targeting a starter doesn't make a lot of sense. The biggest needs for the Tigers are at second and third base. Wilson Betemit has been an offense improvement, but is not a big bat by any stretch of the imagination. Brandon Inge has struggled to hit close to the Mendoza line all year and has had virtually no power. Second base has been a revolving door since the Tigers let Placido Polanco walk away two years ago.
Either via trade or free agent signing, the Tigers need to find answers at those two positions.
The free agent market for both positions is pretty light, so I expect the Tigers to either work out a trade which will send one of their young starters out for a second basemen or they will sign a player they believe can be a stopgap until a better second baseman will be available.
On the third base side of things, the Tigers would probably like to resign Betemit to a reasonable contract and decide whether or not to keep Inge during spring training. Third baseman of the future, Nick Castellanos, is at least two years away from manning the hot corner in Detroit.
One player the Tigers absolutely must resign is utility man Ramon Santiago. Santiago plays excellent defense at both second base and short and can play third in a pinch. Also, I am of the opinion that Santiago's bat is underrated. He is a switch-hitter and has hit .311 since the All-Star break. Overall, Santiago is hitting .256 on the year with four home runs and 23 RBIs.
Unfortunately for Detroit, this year's crop of second and third basemen is extremely thin. One name that is of interest is familiar to Detroit fans: Omar Infante. Infante is a solid defensive second baseman and his bat has developed into reliable. In 2010, Infante was a jack of all trades for the Braves, seeing time at second, third, shortstop, right field and left field. For the year, he hit .321.
This year, he's hitting .276 playing entirely at second base.
If Detroit doesn't think a combo of Ramon Santiago and Danny Worth/Will Rhymes/other prospect isn't what the doctor ordered, then Infante would be a good investment. Detroit has power throughout its lineup, so it doesn't need a second baseman who will hit 20 home runs.
What the Tigers need is a solid bat and a good defender at second.
Third base has a big name who will probably be available in Aramis Ramirez. I don't think signing Ramirez would be the best move for Detroit. First, the Cubs have a team option at $16 million with a $2 million buyout. Ramirez is hitting .306, with 24 home runs and 87 RBI. Those would be great numbers at the hot corner, but his defense is suspect and the cost would be high.
With top-notch prospect Nick Castellanos in the minors and only a couple of years from the getting at bats with the Tigers, I don't think the number of years Ramirez is going to want will warrant the Tigers spending on him.
I think the best bet is either resigning Wilson Betemit or signing Omar Infante to compete/split time with Inge at third. Another option is using a combination of Ramon Santiago, Brandon Inge, and Danny Worth at second at third. My guess is Detroit will try and resign Betemit at third.
As for second, my guess is Detroit looks to the trade market to find its second baseman of the future.