Tiger fans, ask yourselves this question: "Are you better off than you were four weeks ago?" If you’re honest with yourself, the answer has to be a pretty solid NO. At least not so far in terms of the team that they put on the field. But do not despair, this off season is still a work in progress.
Since the 2013 season ended with the Tigers making it to game six of the ALCS, quite a bit has happened. Seven players have become free agents, and the club has declined the option on Jose Veras to make it eight. Gone are the starting first baseman, shortstop, second baseman, closer, set up man, and four other players. Seems like a lot of change for a team that’s been to baseball’s final four in three of the last four seasons.
Most recently, Prince Fielder was traded to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler, and Phil Coke was given a one year contract extension, avoiding arbitration. That's 40% of the regular season's 25 man roster, gone. Eight other Tigers are eligible for arbitration before the 2014 season begins, and a new coaching staff has been brought in to guide the ship. Seems like a lot of change for a team that’s been to baseball’s final four in three of the last four seasons.
Kinsler will essentially replace Omar Infante at second base. That’s likely a modest upgrade, although Infante was the better player in 2013. Jose Iglesias replaces Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, and that’s an overall downgrade when you consider that Peralta was the second most productive player in the Tiger lineup and the second best overall shortstop in the league, in the world according to WARP.
Fielder is gone, and you can pencil in Nick Castellanos as his replacement in the lineup, at least for now. The bench has been cleared with Ramon Santiago, Brayan Pena, and Matt Tuiasosopo gone, and Don Kelly’s status very much up in the air. At least two of the replacements will come from within, with Bryan Holaday and either Hernan Perez or Danny Worth likely making the team.
On the pitching side, the best rotation in the world is back in tact, so far. But the bullpen has been ravaged, with closer Joaquin Benoit and set up men Jose Veras and Octavio Dotel gone. Dave Dombrowski has plainly said that he’ll be signing a closer, but what other moves will the Tigers be making this off season?
You can rest assured that the Tigers, still in full win now mode with a $ 150 million payroll, aren’t done dealing. The closer is likely to come from a fairly substantial list of experienced ninth inning specialists on the free agent market. That will wipe out the savings from the Fielder trade, but still leave the team short of the talent level they were at when the last season ended.
Primary needs, beyond the obvious closer, are more help for the bullpen, and another bat either at third base or in left field, wherever Nick Castellanos doesn’t play. There is much talk of signing some of the most expensive free agents on the market, such as Shin Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, or Curtis Granderson. There’s always that, but my gut feeling is that help is more likely to come by way of the trade market.
If they do resort to the free agent market, which has the advantage of not having to part with a starting pitcher or top prospects, there are a few nice options. While any of the aforementioned trio would cost a first round draft pick for the fourth time in five years, not to mention a multi year contract for $ 15- $ 20 million per year, there are other options that could fill a need, particularly in the bullpen.
It is apparent that there are more closers on the market than there are teams willing to pay premium closer money, so at least a couple are bound to be available at set up prices in the annual after Christmas sale. That’s when the Tigers found Jose Valverde still looking for work in January, and signed him at about a 30% discount a few years ago. But the Tiger bullpen needs more than just a closer. Last year's bullpen ranked 12th of 15 AL teams in ERA, and the strongest links were at the back end.
Joaquin Benoit is one reliever who worked very well in a set up role, and could do so again. Jose Veras should come for quite a bit less. Jesse Crain, and lefty JP Howell are non closers who would look nice in the Tiger bullpen, although the Tigers wouldn’t be the only team interested in their services.
The trade scenarios are a bit more complex. The obvious move is to trade a starting pitcher, possibly Rick Porcello, for as much help in those areas of need as they can find. If the return is greater, Doug Fister or even Max Scherzer could be traded. But the immediate problem is that, if they trade a starting pitcher, that likely moves Drew Smyly into the rotation, and removing the best remaining relief pitcher and the only decent left handed relief pitcher from last year’s pen.
In order to make sense, a trade would have to replace Smyly in the bullpen and then some. Whether they could get a pair of relievers and a bat for Porcello is questionable.
Or, the Tigers could go a different direction and trade a starting pitcher for a big bat. The Jays’ Jose Bautista comes to mind, although he won’t come cheap in a trade. The four time all star also wouldn’t help the payroll, even with $ 6- 7 million coming off by subtracting the salary of a Porcello or a Doug Fister. Bautista has two years remaining at $ 14 million each, with an option for a third season at the same rate. The Angels' Mark Trumbo is a lesser priced slugger who is said to be available in exchange for a starting pitcher. The Rockies' batting champion Michael Cuddyer, or one of the Dodgers' three expensive outfielders- Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, or Carl Crawford could be explored. San Diego's Chase Headley is an elite third baseman who could be moved. Just examples on the upper end of the scale.
In the alternative, the Tigers could spend the savings from the Fielder trade in locking up Max Scherzer or Miguel Cabrera for several more seasons. That leaves them without any real replacement for Fielder's offensive output as they supplement the outfield with a replacement more akin to a Matt Tuiasosopo type of platoon player.
Any way you look at it, the Tigers are not as good as they were four weeks ago, when the season ended. But we also know that the club is dead set on winning a World Series. In order to accomplish that goal, they will need to make some more moves before the 2014 season begins.