With MLB’s free agency hot stove set to heat up, the Detroit Tigers are sure to be active in retooling their roster with nearly 23 million coming off the books. Though new contracts, like Jose Valverde’s 2012 option and raises to Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera will offset a chunk of that, the Tigers still figure to be involved. What positions should they target, and in what order? Who should be the various names they consider? We attempt to answer those questions in depth in the Tigers’ installment of the offseason game plan.
The most important order of business should be to bring some stability to the infield at the key positions of third base and second base. Which position commands the bigger ticket addition? That’s the critical choice which will have to be made. After that, depth within the starting rotation, the bullpen and catcher should each be addressed.
Third base: Wilson Betemit did some decent things down the stretch for the Tigers this fall, but disappeared in the playoffs and should be allowed to sign elsewhere. Without Betemit, the Tigers will be left with Brandon Inge and Don Kelly as their only options at third base. Though they have their moments, neither Inge nor Kelly alone will contribute what is needed offensively every day to win a World Series, and their roles on the team seem to cancel each other out. In a perfect world, the Tigers swallow Inge’s deal, find a new third baseman and use Kelly for the super-sub role. The problem? Much like second base, the free agent market for third basemen is sparse at best. Aramis Ramirez will be the biggest prize available, but his bat comes with the caveat of age and expense.
Game plan: Explore a trade. If the Tigers choose to upgrade third base instead of second base with a big ticket addition, the trade market would be the most appealing place to find a long term solution. Dombrowski should call the Mets regarding David Wright and the Padres about Chase Headley. Otherwise, they could choose to get involved with Ramirez, but they should probably steer clear of him and anyone else on a sparse free agent list.
Second base: After two years of confusion following the departure of Placido Polanco, the Tigers should make finding a new everyday second baseman a goal this offseason. The bad news? Like third base, free agency provides few game changing options at second. Kelly Johnson and Aaron Hill are two names that come to mind which would add some speed and pop to the order. Both are good contact hitters that could set the table for the middle of the order. Jamey Carroll is a steady option in free agency, but is likely more of a platoon player. Beyond that, there isn’t much on the open market. If the Tigers decide to solidify second base long term this offseason, they may have to explore a trade.
Game plan: The Tigers should sign Aaron Hill or Kelly Johnson, but not before they kick the tires on Brandon Phillips of the Cincinnati Reds. Phillips had his option picked up recently, but there have been a few rumblings that he may be available. Dave Dombrowski should at least give the Reds a call and inquire on his availability. If the Tigers don’t move fast in free agency to pick up a Hill, Johnson or even someone like Carroll, you can bet there is something in the works somewhere with regards to a trade.
Starting pitcher: Last offseason, the Tigers were reluctant to add to their pitching staff with a bigger name and instead chose to go the route of promoting Phil Coke to the rotation while signing journeyman veteran Brad Penny. That plan didn’t work out so well during the season. This offseason, the Tigers should be in better shape having already obtained Doug Fister during the summer. They could choose to make one bold move that would make the rotation tough to beat. If the Tigers were to make a move here, a left handed pitcher would be the best option. Fortunately, a few good names exist. C.J. Wilson and Mark Burhle are both left handers who could be the missing piece to a Tigers rotation in dire need of a capable southpaw.
Game plan: Sign Mark Burhle. The Tigers should negotiate with Wilson, but if teams like the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals get involved, expect his price to increase tenfold. He’ll likely price himself out of the Tigers salary range, unless they deem him the number one target on their free agency list. Burhle seems like the better option. He’s a crafty veteran who knows the Central Division well and could give the Tigers what Kenny Rogers gave them in the 2005 offseason. Burhle may need convincing to stay in the A.L. and join a bitter division rival, but that’s what money and incentives are for.
Middle reliever: In 2011, the Tigers threw a ton of money at Joaquin Benoit to occupy the eighth inning. The year before, they did the same thing with Jose Valverde, who will be back in 2012 to pitch the ninth. During the playoffs, those two were as good as it gets. The Tigers bullpen is most in need of quality depth to occupy innings six and seven, bridging the gap between Benoit and Valverde. The playoffs demonstrated how important this can be, as both the Rangers and Cardinals used an extensive bullpen help to secure games and late leads. Expect the Tigers to find a few mildly priced free agents to help out here.
Game plan: Sign any two of these free agent relievers, but think mid to lower tier. Don’t expect the Tigers to get involved with any of the big names this time around, ala Heath Bell. Instead, look for them to wisely add some quality and affordable depth.
Catcher: The wear and tear on Alex Avila was crushing in 2011, and if the Tigers want him to live to see age 30, they should find another catcher to help spell him behind the plate. Instead of counting on Victor Martinez for this, the TIgers should scour the free agent market. A few good options exist, such as Ryan Doumit (formally of Pittsburgh) and Kelly Shoppach (formally of Tampa Bay). Gerald Laird is also free agent, but the potential blowback from the fans upon his return would outweigh any benefits he would provide.
Game plan: Sign Ryan Doumit. Doumit is versatile enough to play other positions (outfield and first base) when not in use as a catcher. His bat is good enough to give the lineup some pop in the absence of Avila (Doumit hit .303 in 2011 with eight home runs) and he would be a capable player to plug into the lineup without a strict decline in offense.
One potential big (but unlikely) move that could be made: Sign Jose Reyes, move Jhonny Peralta to third base, eat Inge’s contract, sign a lower tier free agent to play second base. This scenario might seem far fetched, but if Mike Ilitch likes Reyes enough to make him the team’s number one priority, it’s wise to never say never. This is despite Reyes’ high price tag (perhaps 100 million?) and Peralta’s previous aversion to the hot corner. Reyes also isn’t getting any younger at age 30, and he has been injury prone in the past, meaning any long term deal will be extremely risky. Despite that, Reyes’ speed and leadoff ability would make him a natural fit for the Tigers and Comerica Park. Tuesday, Dombrowski indicated he didn’t plan to get involved with anyone like Reyes, but free agency is a high stakes game of poker. Until Reyes signs with someone else, take that with a grain of salt.
With these simple additions, the Tigers should be set up well to contend for a second straight division title and a return trip to the ALCS in 2012.