After a disappointing game six the Tigers and fans alike are left wondering what exactly went wrong and how they can take the next step to finally win the last game of the season. For two seasons in a row the offense has been inconsistent in the postseason behind the weak bats of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, while the bullpen has failed to be any more than average at best. Meanwhile the Tigers are now another step closer to free agency for Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Victor Martinez and others. In the end the Tigers had a great regular season but ended six games short of a World Series Win. In honor of their valiant effort, here are Six Questions for the Offseason.
All stats below are from baseballreference.com. MLB average BAbip was .297 for the 2012 and 2013 season.
1.Who's staying and who's going?
The Tigers go into the offseason facing decisions on Joaquin Benoit, Jeremy Bonderman, Ocatvio Dotel, Omar Infante, Brayan Peña, Jhonny Peralta, Ramon Santiago and Jose Veras as all are headed to free agency or have an option in their contract. These players accounted for over $20 million dollars of payroll which would give a loaded Tiger roster some much needed room to maneuver in free agency and other contract extensions.
Joaquin Benoit is one of the most important names on this list as was the most consistent and dominant reliever in the Tiger bullpen and was an excellent closer, outside of a single poorly placed pitch to David Ortiz. What happens to Joaquin Benoit is directly dependent on what the Tigers and the rest of the league do in Free Agency. Of course whether the Tigers resign Benoit will depend greatly on their plans for Jose Veras and free agency. Benoit was paid $5.5 Million last season, a total he will rightfully surpass wherever he lands next season after posting a career high with 24SV and an outstanding 2.01 ERA. The biggest question the Tigers will face with Benoit is how much of a price difference will there be between Benoit and a more established closer like Grant Balfour, Fernando Rodney or Edward Mujica among others. Look for the Tigers to examine options with Veras and outside closers before deciding on Benoit.
Jeremy Bonderman returned to the Tigers but struggled after a sensational outing in Cleveland, posting a 6.48 ERA and appearing in only 2 of the final 29 games. It is unlikely that Bondo would play a major roll in either the Tigers bullpen or salary plans. While I think we would all love to see Bondo return the odds of him getting anything more than a minor league offer are slim.
Octavio Dotel will be 40 by the time spring training comes around and after missing the 2013 season with an injury it seems that Dotel will most likely retire, especially given that the Tigers seemingly have no need for a right-handed specialist with a healthy Bruce Rondon and a much improved Al Alburquerque coming out of the bullpen. Either way its unlikely Dotel will be paid another $3.5 Million by the Tigers in 2014.
Omar Infante will enter the 2014 season as a 32 year old coming off one of the best offensive seasons of his career (.318/.345/.450) which featured a career high slugging and the highest average since his rookie season, despite missing 34 games due to injury. Infante will compete with second basemen Robinson Cano, Nick Punto and Brian Roberts in free agency this season, and will likely try to exceed his previous $4 Million contract. However, with absolutely zero options in the farm and few improvements in free agency (aside from a super contract for Robinson Cano) look for Dave D to make keeping Infante a shovel pass away from Iglesias a top priority this offseason.
Brayan Peña made $875,000 and was a useful platoon player as a backup for the perpetually injured Alex Avila. Much as they did with Gerald Laird look for the Tigers to attempt to resign Peña but look for other platoon options in free agency or perhaps roll with Bryan Holaday.
Jhonny Peralta is not staying in Detroit. Coming of an all-star year (.303(career high)/.358/.457) darkened by a steroid suspension, Peralta will look to get paid on a free agent market that is consistently generous to shortstops (see $9 Million for Stephen Drew in 2012). Whether the steroid issue will haunt Peralta or not, the Tigers will roll with the slickest fielder in the league and short and chose to free up the $6 Million paid to Peralta (minus fines) in 2012.
Ramon Santiago played the fewest games of his career since 2008 and served strictly as a platoon roll throughout the season. Whether the Tigers resign Santiago or go with Hernan Perez is largely irrelevant to the team as a whole, but the $2 Million previously paid to Santiago will continue to help free up money for this year and beyond.
Jose Veras will either be a free agent after a $150K team buyout or a Detroit Tiger after a $3.25 Million club option. What the Tigers do will directly affect Benoit and any free agent pitcher signings, but both the club option and team buyout are relatively cheap options for a team with increasing salary issues.
In total the Tigers will free up about $22-25 Million in free agency (depending on Veras) for use in resigning Infante and looking to possibly add platoon players, a left fielder or a bullpen arm.
2.Will Dave D make a key add yet again?
The past few years have seen the Tigers bring in names like Prince FIelder, Torii Hunter and Anibal Sanchez, but with all this money being spent many believe that there will not be a large of an addition this year as in previous. Fortunately the Tigers only have three true needs that they would like to fill during free agency and all are cheap compared to money spent on Prince or Sanchez. The Tigers will look to spend about $10 Million a year on Infante leaving between $12 and $15 Million of last years salary to address left field and the bullpen. An established closer will likely be around $15 Million (as seen with Soriano in 2012), while a more standard reliever would cost around $5 Million on average. One would expect Benoit to fetch somewhere between those two on the open market while bringing back Veras is a flat $3.25 Million. Depending on the quality of the hitter one can expect a left fielder to range between $8 and $12 million on average and really any everyday option would be a huge improvement over the Tui/Dirks platoon. With all the money freed up by free agency Dave D will easily have the wiggle room to bring back Infante and add a strong arm to the pen. Whether or not that arm is a proven closer or if a left fielder is added will depend largely on how much more money Illitch is willing to spend.
3.Who's in left? (and don't say "why")
After a postseason in which Andy Dirks hit .000, Don Kelly hit .182, and Matt Tuiasosopo the Left Field spot remains at question. Despite Andy Dirks's excellent 2012 season (.322/.370/.487), he failed to produce in 2013 (.256/.323/363). While certainly a solid defender and valuable left handed bat, his BAbip (.365 in '13 and .273 in '12) suggests that the 2013 Dirks is the most realistic of the two. Matt Tuiasosopo on the other hand began the 2013 season with a bang (.338/.466/.563 with 3HRs and 17RBIs on .420 BAbip) before being sat down on June 20th with an injury. Tui seemed to shake off his injury with 3HRs in his first 3 games back, but unfortunately saw his role diminish and hit (.153/.242/.188 on .240 BAbip) the rest of the way. Much like Dirks, Tui came back to Earth in terms of average but could certainly be a valuable platoon bat if he can find the stroke that made him a valuable power threat in early 2013. These two plus Don Kelly make a fine platoon but will only serve to shrink a lineup that will be without All-Star Jhonny Peralta. Look for the Tigers to go into free agency with a strong hitting left fielder in mind.
4.Who's in the pen?
Insert everything said about the Tigers last year... sort of. Assuming a healthy Rondon, a more consistent Albuquerque and Drew Smyly remaining in the pen the Tigers will begin with a much stronger pen than last year. This will only improve as the Tigers trim down their spring training roster (Phil Coke, Luke Putkonen, Darin Downs... etc) and look to add free agents or exercise a club option on Veras. The Tigers will likely sign/resign some combination of two arms (Benoit, Veras, Free-Agent Reliever, Free-Agent Closer) to setup a group of five or so reliable late inning arms. With an improved Rondon and added arms, look for this bullpen to be much improved for last year when the season starts.
5.How will we manage?
With Leyland gone the Tigers now begin the search for a new voice in the clubhouse, one that can't get caught up on replacing Leyland, an impossible task, but rather getting this team to a World Series Championship. Until we finally know for sure who the new skipper will be the internet will be filled with countless conjecture and analysis by people far smarter and more qualified than me and so I wont waste your time with a long analysis. Here is my short list: Tony La Russa, Brad Ausmus, Kirk Gibson and not Dusty Baker or Gene Lamont. However, much like when a new head coach comes to a football team the rest of the staff may be due for a change as well.
Perhaps the only coach truly on the hot seat is Tom Brookens, who had a bad first year as the third base coach. Tom Brookens acted as the evil computer in a Tower Defense game, mindlessly sending scores of runners to certain doom hoping that one would reach the pay dirt based on sheer numbers. If this sounds like hyperbole you're not wrong, but Brookens was still well below league average. In 2012 the Tigers had 15 outs at home, 2 below the league average of 17 while the 2013 Tigers sent 20 men to their doom at home, 3 above the league average of 17. While this may not seem like a huge increase it gets even worse when you consider the fact that the 2013 Tigers were a better team offensively than their 2012 counterparts. The 2013 Tigers hit 13 more homer runs, 13 more doubles and a .015 better average than the 2012 Tigers. They 2013 Tigers also blew out their opponents (+5 runs) 33 times compared to 16 times in 2012. That means that there were 17 more games in 2013 where runners had no business being sent home on a risky call. All of this combines to show that despite a better offense and more blowouts Brookens still sent more men to outs at home. This doesn't even take into account the couple thrown out in the postseason and the numerous base running errors that occurred at or around third. With these in mind, don't be surprised if the new manager brings in a new third base coach
6.What about the future?
With Jim Leyland retiring the dream of going out on top is gone but a "win now" mentality is very much intact for the front office but the idea of "winning later' has to be on everybody's mind. After all this team has one of the worst farm systems in baseball and will have to deal with Max Scherzer facing free agency in 2015 and Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Austin Jackson, Alex Avila and MIGUEL CABRERA!!! With $24 Million to Prince till 2020, $28 Million to JV from 2015-19, and $16 Million to Sanchez from 2014-17 the Tigers have some questions to make on salary. The first and easiest is GIVE CABRERA WHATEVER HE WANTS!!! Ya gotta pay Miggy and you can't let him reach free agency, so the Tigers will make the easiest decision in the world and sign the greatest hitter in a generation. The second decision has to deal with Austin Jackson and Alex Avila, who have both had up and down seasons but play critical team roles (table setting for AJax and managing the rotation for Alex). These two players future will depend on performance, prospects and the free agent market, so don't expect any major decisions on either (when compared to the money tied up in the rest of the team their salaries really aren't significant anyway). This leads to the hardest decision: the rotation. As amazing as JV, Max, Anibal and Fister were in the postseason you simple can't keep all of them, but its not all bad. Porcello and Smyly were both excellent this year (aside from 2 games against the Angels) and look to be anchors in the rotation of the future. This leaves a crucial decision between Max Scherzer and Doug Fister. Max has the obvious edge but the predicted cost of signing makes him an impractical option, while Doug Fister provides more consistent but less elite success for much less. Which pitcher stays will largely depend on negotiations with Scherzer over the next year. If its reasonable the Tigers will extend Scherzer and let the chips with Fister fall where they may. If its outrageous the Tigers will most likely let Scherzer walk and keep Fister. Look for the Tigers to inch closer to this decision during the offseason.
What are questions without answers? Plus if there are no dumb answers there are no dumb questions, so here are my dumb answers:
1. Infante, Santiago, and Benoit stay. Bondo gets a minor league contract. Veras is optioned out after a poor postseason.
2. Dave D will sign Edward Mujica, a platoon catcher and if Illitch wills it, a left fielder (my guess would be Nelson Cruz).
3. Dirks/Tui/Kelly/Castellanos? will play left in platoon unless Nelson Cruz is signed with pizza money.
4. Smyly, Benoit, Rondon, Al, Coke and Mujica will combine to lock down the late innings after the starters do their thing.
5. Tigers will sign Brad Ausmus, leaving La Russa in retirement, Lamont on the bench and Baker as far away as possible from the the golden arms of the rotation. Brookens will change coaching positions.
6. Tigers will extend Cabrera, Scherzer and Porcello as Doug Fister walks. However I hope the Tigers extend Cabrera, Fister and Porcello and trade Scherzer at next years deadline.
Predictions? Asmus brings young voice and urgency that mixes well with veterans and long players alike and the team gels. Benoit and Mujica lock down the 8th and 9th respectively, while Tui and Castellanos create a sneaky powerful left field platoon. With Peralta gone the offense doesn't click as well but Iggy adds much needed speed while a healthy Cabrera sluggs the Tigers to easy wins over a regressed Cleveland and KC (no Ubaldo or Shields respectively). Tigers clinch early, but Asmus keeps the pedal down enough to keep the bats hot when the playoffs roll around. Max, Doug, JV and Anibal are fantastic again and the Tigers roll easily to a World Series win. Prince hits a homerun in the postseason. Miggy wins the triple crown and MVP, his third in three years. Verlander picks up where he left off last year and wins the Cy Young. Igglesias wins a gold clove. Asmus gets manager of the year votes.
- All stats courtesy of baseballreference.com. If you read of all of that you then thank you for indulging my unhealthy baseball obsession. I hope some of what I wrote proves to be insightful or accurate in someway. This is a biased article, I am a fan first and a writer (used loosely) second. Thank you for reading and go Tigers!