Offseason Outlook: Detroit Tigers

The Tigers have openings at second base, the back of the rotation and in the bullpen, but the AL Central champions' core will return in 2012.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (estimated salaries)

Contract Options

  • Jose Valverde, RP: $9MM club option, no buyout (Type A Elias ranking)

Free Agents

There was a lot to like about the 2011 Tigers team. Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Alex Avila were among the best in baseball at their respective positions, Detroit won 95 regular season games and they defeated the Yankees in the Division Series. For the Tigers to return to the postseason in 2012, they'll have to address questions on the infield and add depth to the pitching staff.

If the Tigers retain all of their arbitration eligible players except non-tender candidate Brad Thomas and exercise Jose Valverde's option, as expected, they'll have nearly $100MM in commitments for next year, not including minimum salary players. Nine-figure payrolls are nothing new to the Tigers. They’ve spent more than $100MM in payroll each of the past four seasons, averaging $123MM since 2008. After spending $107MM in 2011 and making a run to the ALCS, it wouldn't be surprising if owner Mike Ilitch boosts payroll. Expect GM Dave Dombrowski to have the cash he needs to address the Tigers' weaknesses.

Manager Jim Leyland got by without an everyday second baseman in 2011. He mixed and matched Ryan Raburn, Ramon Santiago, Carlos Guillen and others, without relying on any one player for more than 62 games at the position. Santiago and Guillen both hit free agency this offseason, which leaves the Tigers with a clear vacancy.

Jamey Carroll, Mark Ellis, Aaron Hill and Kelly Johnson are among the offseason's top available second basemen. Since the free agent market doesn't offer much, the Tigers will likely explore trades for alternatives. Blake DeWitt, Orlando Hudson, Maicer Izturis and Alberto Callaspo are among the second base trade targets for Dombrowski to consider. All four players will have new GMs this offseason, and though that doesn't mean they'll be on the block, it could make them easier to obtain. It will take some creativity for the Tigers to obtain an above-average second baseman given the current options at the position. If Dombrowski doesn't like the market at second base, he could sign a shortstop to play second or simply re-sign Santiago and focus on the left side of the infield.

The team could also use help at third base, as Wilson Betemit hits free agency and Brandon Inge doesn't provide enough offense for the position. The Tigers, never a team to shy away from top free agents, could pursue Aramis Ramirez. He'd keep Inge on the bench and add offense to a team that finished fourth in MLB in runs scored. Signing Ramirez would likely require a two or three-year commitment given the relatively weak class of free agent third basemen. It won't cost a draft pick, though, and 19-year-old prospect Nick Castellanos is not MLB-ready. The Tigers could be tempted to sign Jose Reyes and move Jhonny Peralta back to third base, but an acquisition at second or third seems more likely.

There's been speculation that the Tigers could pursue top free agent starters, such as C.C. Sabathia and Yu Darvish. While a starter of their caliber would no doubt improve the Tigers' rotation, it's not clear whether Dombrowski has serious interest in adding a top pitcher from the free agent market. The rotation, which includes right-handers Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, only has one opening. Brad Penny will likely depart via free agency and Phil Coke figures to stay in the bullpen, but the Tigers could give 2009 first rounder Jacob Turner an extended look in the rotation. The 20-year-old struggled through three MLB starts this year, but posted a 3.44 ERA with 7.6 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9 in 131 innings in the upper minors. If the Tigers don't add a top free agent starter, they will likely add an affordable arm or two to compete with Turner and Andy Oliver and provide depth in case of an injury.

Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, Ryan Perry, Daniel Schlereth and Al Alburquerque figure to contribute to the Tigers' bullpen in 2012. Free agent Joel Zumaya could return on a minor league deal after missing the entire season with a right elbow injury. With so many holdovers, there may be concern about the 2011 bullpen's walk rate of 4.4 BB/9 — the highest among MLB 'pens. The Tigers will probably add at least one reliever this offseason to supplement the existing group.

The Magglio Ordonez era may be finished in Detroit, since the Tigers have younger, more affordable options who lack Ordonez’s health concerns. Austin Jackson has solidified his place in center field, Brennan Boesch posted a .799 OPS before tearing a thumb tendon in September, and Raburn and Don Kelly provide Leyland with depth. Delmon Young, who seemed destined for a non-tender with the Twins, probably earned himself an arbitration offer from the Tigers due to a strong finish. He hit eight home runs in the final six weeks of the regular season and added five more homers in the playoffs.

The Tigers have six free agents, including three Type B players, but they won't necessarily have extra draft picks in 2012. The risk that Zumaya and Ordonez would accept arbitration likely outweighs the possible reward of the supplemental pick. Betemit could be the lone candidate for an arbitration offer. He earned just $1MM in 2011 while posting a .795 OPS, so the downside of offering arbitration seems minimal. If he accepts, he's back on an affordable one-year deal, and if he declines and signs elsewhere, the Tigers get a draft pick. However, the Tigers already have Inge and Kelly under team control, so they may decide against carrying three third base options.

Alex Avila emerged as one of the game's top catchers this season, hitting 19 homers and posting a .295/.389/.506 line. Victor Martinez's knees prevented him from catching after August 4th, but he has said he can catch again in 2012. The Tigers will probably still want a third option behind the plate to reduce their reliance on Martinez's knees.

The Tigers may consider extensions for Avila and Jackson this offseason, though both are four seasons away from free agency. There's no rush to lock either player up.

Big name free agents such as Darvish and Reyes could have appeal for the Tigers, but Detroit's most pressing offseason need exists at second base. If Dombrowski can obtain a second baseman and add depth to his pitching staff, the Tigers will enter the 2012 season as favorites to repeat in the AL Central.


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