As the 2015 baseball season draws to a close with the Detroit Tigers nowhere close to playoff contention, Tigers fans are already looking toward next season. New general manager Al Avila is making his list, checking it twice, and preparing for a busy offseason to get the Tigers back into contention by the time the 2016 season begins.
The Tigers have a solid core in place, but their departing free agents leave several gaping holes. Gone already are David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, Joakim Soria, and Joba Chamberlain. Pending free agents include Alfredo Simon, Rajai Davis, Alex Avila and Tom Gorzelanny. Each of those departing players leaves a vacancy on the roster that the Tigers do not have an internal replacement for. The organization does have some young talented players who are near major league ready, but they are not ready enough to be counted on for the major roles that will be left vacant.
Here is what Al Avila’s shopping list should look like, without naming names, for the upcoming off season.
1. A starting pitcher who is capable of replacing David Price.
This is easier said than done, but one scenario includes Justin Verlander continuing to be as dominant next season as he was during the second half of 2015, regaining his status as the ace of the staff. In that case, the club needs to replace the 2013-14 version of Verlander, who has recently been somewhere behind Max Scherzer and Price on a very deep rotation. There is no likely scenario, barring a major spending spree, where the Tigers are contenders without Verlander and Anibal Sanchez pitching at their best, but the team will need another high quality pitcher to go with them.
2. A mid-rotation starter
Another starting pitcher is needed to take up a spot in the middle of the rotation. One starter won't cut it. One of the newly-acquired pitchers who came in the trades for Price or Cespedes may step up and be a good number four pitcher, but the odds are against that, if only because of the innings needed from that spot. This list of the rookie pitchers in the American League this season who have had the largest work loads shows what can reasonably be expected. Not one rookie has thrown 150 innings. The new guys could be very good in another year or two, and they can give the team some much needed depth that they lacked in 2015, but expecting two of them to take up regular spots in the rotation in 2016 is a bit much to expect.
3. A corner outfielder
A replacement for Yoenis Cespedes, who replaced Torii Hunter, is a must. With the show that Cespedes has put on in New York, he will cost upwards of $20 million per season for more years than most clubs will be willing to pay. A more reasonable expectation might be a veteran outfielder who can bat at the top of the order, get on base, and play solid defense. The Tigers offense went from second-best to second-worst in the AL after the All-Star break. This will be the main offensive acquisition.
4. A closer
The Tigers will need to replace Joakim Soria, who replaced Joe Nathan. They would be wise to acquire a solid relief pitcher who has some late inning experience rather than doling out $10 million per year for a "proven closer." Then, use the savings for other needs. The Tigers should not make the mistake of counting on Bruce Rondon for a late inning role for the fourth year in a row. If Rondon can step up, great. Just don’t count on it.
5. A setup man
This was a need at this time last year, but the front office failed to address the need a year ago. Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson are the two returning relievers who proved to be reliable. Others are not, and that would include Neftali Feliz, who could be non-tendered if a deal can not be worked out at a substantial discount. The Tigers' bullpen outperformed their overall numbers for years by solidifying the late innings. The bullpen has to be a top priority this winter.
6. A part-time center fielder
At minimum, the Tigers need a partner for Anthony Gose in center field. Rajai Davis was okay in that role, but the team can probably do better defensively for a part-time player. They could search for a full-time center fielder, but finding one is easier said than done.
7. A backup catcher
James McCann can't catch everyday, so the Tigers need a backstop that can call at least 50 games. Ideally, a switch-hitter or a left-handed hitting catcher would fit. In addition to Alex Avila, some free agent catchers who fit that bill include former Tiger Brayan Pena, Dioner Navarro, and A.J. Pierzynski. Avila could be brought back if he can’t land a starting job elsewhere, but his price may not drop enough for the Tigers to keep him. Promoting Bryan Holaday would be a low-budget move.
Al Avila's shopping list is quite substantial, and it will be expensive, but all necessary for the team to contend in 2016. More than anything, the Tigers also need their well-paid stars perform like they are capable. The Tigers need healthy and productive seasons from Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, as well as Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. Some gradual improvement can be expected from young players like McCann, Gose, and Nick Castellanos, and the group of highly-rated young prospects that were acquired in July. However, that is not enough; if the team is going to contend in 2016, they need to go shopping.