DETROIT — For certain Tigers players like Miguel Cabrera or Justin Verlander, obtaining a World Series title remains a consistent possibility. When the present season doesn't work out, there's the steady hope that the next one will be fruitful with the same team.
That is not the case for five players entering free agency this offseason, some of whom have been critically important to the success of the Tigers in recent years. Max Scherzer, Victor Martinez, Joba Chamberlain, Torii Hunter, and Phil Coke are no longer under contract with Detroit and will test the waters this winter. Reliever Jim Johnson and Joel Hanrahan (whom the Tigers signed but were never able to use) will join the five in free agency.
Hunter is contemplating retirement after 18 seasons. Scherzer and Martinez have been solid, but their stint with the Tigers is no longer a certainty.
All would like to stay, but that may not be possible even if it's what they want. Scherzer has been with the Tigers for five years, Martinez for four. While the Tigers lost Martinez to a knee injury in 2012, he has been critically important for the team since being acquired by the Tigers in 2011.
This season, Martinez was irreplaceable, Scherzer the team's best starter. If the Tigers are unable to sign either or both key players, filling those holes becomes tricky, even with the acquisition of David Price.
Scherzer has spent all but two of his seven years in the big leagues with Detroit. The Tigers are just about the only team he's known. Despite opting for free agency this offseason — rather than the contract the Tigers offered at the start of the season — he'd prefer to stay with the Tigers.
"I hope. It's hard to even think about that right now when you have a loss like this," Scherzer said. "Whenever you get bounced out of the postseason, it always stinks, so the picture will adjust as the offseason progresses. I do hope I'm back. I love this clubhouse, love the players in here. I've gone to battle with these guys for five years."
Scherzer's teammates aren't too keen on the subject of possibly losing a dominant starter, and a good friend. Verlander is the "last man standing" from the 2006 season. He's seen a lot of turnover in eight years, so watching players leave is nothing new.
Still, he and Scherzer have worked alongside each other for some time and even though it's part of the game of baseball, it doesn't get any easier.
Going out so early in the postseason "stinks." It stinks for the players, the team, and the fans. Four consecutive failed attempts is even more difficult to accept. Possibly losing valuable teammates on top of all that just twists the knife.
"That's the thing," Scherzer said. "We've been battling over the last few years with each other. My teammates have been unbelievable. And for this season to come to an end the way it did, just always leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth. But hopefully there's a way we can continue to keep playing together."
The question of the hour has become Scherzer's impending free agency. It's unavoidable, but it was too fresh a subject for Scherzer when he was asked soon after Sunday's loss.
"I'm not even going to answer that question," Scherzer said, his voice carrying with it a hint of sadness and hurt. "Guys, we just lost a really tough series, the toughest series of the year. It's unfair for me to even comment on anything other than that."
He's not the only one who doesn't feel the need to comment much on the matter. Before the season began Martinez expressed his desire to remain in Detroit with the knowledge it might not happen, but his feelings haven't changed since. Martinez wants to stay with the Tigers.
"They know," Martinez said. "They know, so we'll see what happens."
What Martinez wasn't expecting was to have the career-year he had this season. It was a pleasant surprise even though the season had a bittersweet ending.
"I never thought in my life I was going to hit 30 homers in the big leagues," Martinez said. "But like I always say, I'd rather be lucky than good. Same guy, that might be a career year. I'm going to enjoy that one."
For Chamberlain, who signed a one-year contract prior to the 2014 season, a rough second-half of the season puts his future with the Tigers in uncertain terms.
He was dominant in his role during the first-half of the season, but he was used excessively because of a struggling bullpen, and Chamberlain began to wear down. He'll take this season for what it's worth though, through the ups and the downs.
"I loved the experience, from top to bottom, the staff, and the players that everybody is surrounded with, it's been awesome," Chamberlain said. "It's been one of the greatest years of my life as far as personally and on the field. Just to make a lot of friends that I feel I'm going to have the rest of my life is a special feeling."
But after the results of the second-half of the season, will he be back?
"I have no idea," Chamberlain said. "I'm worried about taking care of an eight-year-old son right now, that's about the biggest thing, my biggest worry right now. I think he's taking it a little bit harder than I am. That's my biggest worry right now, I'll worry about myself later. I just want to make sure that he's all right. We'll go on from there."
Next year will take care of itself, right now the players are taking it one step at a time. Soon they'll find out if they will pursue a World Series ring with familiar faces, or whether that steady hope at a title will be overshadowed by a new team. Or in Hunter's case, dimmed altogether by retirement.