I suppose I should offer you a disclaimer up front: This part of the season review ventures into territory that I am, admittedly, not well-versed in, such as arbitration and contract negotiation. Still, I will try my best.
Last year, a bunch of writers were expecting/imploring the Tigers to sell everyone off and rebuild. I thought they had a chance to contend and advised waiting until the Trade Deadline to determine whether that particular course of action was appropriate. My viewpoint turned out to be the correct one. This time, it’s a little bit trickier. By no means do I think they should rebuild. They can still contend (This is, of course, assuming that our pitching holds up; i.e. Verlander doesn’t suffer any ill effects from his workload, that Jackson’s struggles were merely the result of him hitting a wall, that Porcello doesn’t have a sophomore slump, and that Bonderman/Galarraga/Robertson can remain healthy and effective; these are dangerous but necessary assumptions). However, my gut feeling is that it’ll be harder for them to contend next year than it was this year. At this stage, the White Sox are looking like the biggest threat. They are going to have a really tough starting rotation (Peavy, Buerhle, Danks, Floyd, and Garcia), and if they can get at least a slight bit of consistently out of their offense, defense, and bullpen, they are going to be very difficult to beat (Not impossible, though. Seattle had the best pitching in the league and they finished third in their division). The Twins are kind of an unknown quantity right now. They came on real strong at the end, but which is more representative of them: Their September run or what they did the rest of the season? A lot of guys on their offense had career years, but their pitching was not all that impressive for most of the year. The big question surrounding the Twins is, of course, how they’ll fare without being able to rely on Metrodome weirdness. Kansas City is not expected to do much, but they do have at least two really good pitchers in Greinke and Meche (if he can stay healthy), and possibly a third if Robinson Tejeda can overcome the control problems. If you end up playing them when they’re in that part of the rotation, wins won’t necessarily come easy. And all the experts (and virtually all the bloggers) are expecting a miserable, rebuilding season for the Cleveland Indians. However, something’s telling me that the Indians will be better than a lot of people expect them to be. Maybe they won’t contend, but with all the highly-touted prospects they’ve gotten in these trades, I don’t really expect them to roll over, either. The Tigers can contend, but they’ll have their work cut out for them.
The big hurdle, as most everyone knows, is the fact that most of the payroll is already tied up in existing contracts, and with a lot of key players eligible for arbitration, one of whom (Verlander) should be locked up long-term, there’s not going to be much left for going after free agents (or even keeping ours). There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that is that a lot of these overblown contracts will come off the books after 2010, and some are estimating that the Tigers will have $50-60 million in payroll freed up. However, for now, we’ve got to just ride through it.
The starting rotation looks to be low on the priority list as far as adding pieces go. As I already said, there are quite a few assumptions that must be made, but for now, the Tigers have a good 1-2-3 punch. Locking up Justin Verlander is very important, and should be one of the first things they cross off the list (negotiations with Verlander have been difficult in the past, however, making for an excellent example of why I don’t really like offseason dealings; more often than not, they make even the most highly thought-of players look despicable), although it’s probably not a good idea to go more than four years for a pitcher. As far as the fourth and fifth starters go, Dave Dombrowski believes Bonderman will be ready, and the last spot seems to be up for grabs, with Galarraga, Robertson, and Bonine the most likely candidates. Obviously stuff can happen and things can change. Injuries are a real good way of causing that. It always seems like when you “know” which five guys are going to be in the rotation at the beginning of spring training, something will happen and you’ll end up with someone you weren’t expecting. But for now, there are other needs to address.
The bullpen is expected to undergo an overhaul of sorts, which you’d expect when both your closer and your top setup guy are free agents. Payroll constraints will prevent the Tigers from being able to retain everyone, and they almost certainly won’t be able to keep both Rodney AND Lyon. If it were up to me (and I don’t like making these sorts of statements), I would make more of an effort to re-sign Lyon and make him the closer for next year (as strange as it would be seeing Rodney in another uniform). Lyon had a very successful year, however, so I don’t know how difficult that would be (They should definitely offer him arbitration, at the very least). The closer market isn’t as dynamic as it was last year. Probably the biggest name on the market this offseason will be Jose Valverde. At the same time, I admittedly don’t know all the teams that will be in need of a closer. Still, Dave Dombrowski has said that their preference is to sign a veteran to close, which is probably a wise move. We don’t know if Zumaya will remain healthy/effective, and I don’t think Ryan Perry is ready yet. As far as the rest of the bullpen goes, one or two of those arms we keep hearing about might be ready, but it looks likely that it’ll be largely the same group that we saw this year.
Before we move on, I’d like to take a moment to discuss Inge, Galarraga, and Zumaya. What do they have in common? They all struggled and they were all injured at some point in the season. I think it’s very likely that their struggles were caused by their respective injuries. I know there are some who disagree with me. But we must find out for sure. We have to see how these guys perform when we know they’re completely healthy (Inge during the season, the two pitchers during spring training at minimum). We must eliminate the injury variable. To do otherwise is just bad scientific form.
As far as the outfield goes, well, center and right are pretty much settled. Left field seemingly remains up in the air. There seems to be some disagreement among Tiger fans about whether to obtain a corner outfielder with a big bat through trade (none of the suggested names have met with much enthusiasm so far, though) or whether to give Ryan Raburn a shot as an everyday player (Marcus Thames is expected to be non-tendered). No one seems to want Guillen out there. They’d prefer that he DH (Guillen doesn’t want to DH, though). I caution that defense should still be a very high priority, but if we must sacrifice a little D for the sake of getting more offense, this is probably the position to do it. I’ve heard the names Milton Bradley, Scott Podsednik, and Brad Hawpe mentioned on Bless You Boys, and as I said, no one seems to be wild about any of them (with the exception of about two or three people who very much want Milton Bradley and are very vocal about this desire). I considered Luke Scott around the trade deadline, but since then, I’ve kinda cooled off on him. He had a horrible second half, batting only .208 with only seven home runs (Yeah, I know that fits the description of certain Tigers, but as far as I know, Luke Scott wasn’t injured). I also thought of Jeremy Hermida, but once I looked up his numbers, I wasn’t wowed by him either (He only batted .259 for the season, though he did bat .312 in August before missing nearly all of September with an oblique injury). All these suggestions are just underwhelming. I can think of four guys in the NL West alone that I would rather have, though we don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell at getting any of them. At the same time, though, I feel it’s definitely possible to get more offense out of the guys we already have (just as I felt the same way about the pitching after 2008). I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but looking at our roster, I feel as if nearly all our guys are capable of more than what they did.
The infield is a place that might look significantly different in 2010. We’ll still have Inge and Cabrera anchoring the corners, of course (and hopefully, Inge’s knees will be 100% and Miguel will have gotten his off-the-field problems sorted out). However, it’s looking incredibly likely that we will not be able to keep Polanco, which is sad. But he will probably be the top draw second baseman on the free agent market, and the Tigers won’t be able to afford him if that’s the case. I’ll miss that large cranium of his (and if he signs with another AL Central team, I’ll be heartbroken). He does project to be a Type A free agent at this point, so it’s probably worth offering him arbitration. If he accepts, great. If he declines, we at least get two draft picks. Right now, it looks as though the Tigers are prepared to have Scott Sizemore as their starting second baseman next year. I am most definitely not an expert on prospects. I know Sizemore projects to hit for more power and has more speed than Polanco but won’t be nearly as good defensively. I did see him in person once at a Mud Hens game. Between Erie and Toledo, he hit .308, but like the rest of the Mud Hens, struck out a lot. Which leads me to another issue: With Polanco gone, we’re gonna need another #2 hitter (not an easy task when you consider Polanco is one of, if not THE best #2 hitter in baseball). Some Tigers fans have the idea of sticking Magglio in the 2-hole. Maggs does fulfill two of what I consider to be the three requirements for being a good #2 hitter (if, in fact, his August and September numbers do indeed reflect what he is still capable of). He can hit for average and he doesn’t strike out that often (though he does strike out more often than Polanco). However, he isn’t what I would call a “bat-handler” and I feel you would be doing him a disservice by trying to make him into one. Personally, I keep wondering what Sizemore would net us in the trade market (Perhaps a much more attractive option in the outfield than Brad Hawpe, should he be packaged properly? “He” meaning Sizemore). Shortstop is also an issue since Everett is a free agent. He would probably be fairly inexpensive to re-sign, and you could continue his platoon with Santiago. There are concerns about Cale Iorg, though. Last year, Dombrowski proclaimed that Iorg would be a “superstar” one day, but he had an awful year at Erie. 2010 will probably be “now-or-never” time for Iorg, and I’d be shocked if he made it to the big leagues next year. Catcher is kind of a bone of contention. Depending on whether you value more defense or more offense in your catcher, Gerald Laird was either a great find or a disappointing failure. Now, I did approve of the Laird trade when it happened, and though I expected more from him offensively (and I see no reason why he CAN’T match his career average of .250 next year), I think sheer number of runners he threw out and his ability to work with the pitching staff (which cannot be quantified mathematically) far outweighed his lack of contribution with the bat. My personal baseball guru put it another way: “Your catcher is there for defense. Anything you can get out of him with the bat is gravy.” I think, as Tiger fans, we have been spoiled in recently because we’ve had catchers like Bill Freehan, Lance Parrish, and Pudge Rodriguez, all of them good hitters AND good defenders. I do NOT think Alex Avila is ready to be a starting catcher, but having putting him in an “apprenticeship” role might be advantageous, with the idea that you could slowly transition over to him by the end of the year, depending on how the season goes (Remember, at this point last year, a lot of fans thought Dusty Ryan would be our catcher of the future). I do say this with a bit of reservation, because the left-handed bat presents what may be an offensive liability when facing left-handed pitching, and because so often, it seems like the sole reason for having a left-handed hitting catcher is because he hits left-handed. I’m not gonna bother quantifying this, but it seems like the current crop of left-handed catchers in the big leagues are not particularly good throwers. AJ Pierzynski, Brian McCann, and John Baker immediately come to mind. Miguel Montero has gotten better, and Joe Mauer is okay, but they are still not at the level of the Molinas, Pudge, or Laird when it comes to throwing. Alex Avila is still sort of learning the position, and he did have a good success rate throwing out runners in Erie, so hopefully those skills will start to translate next year.
It’s also well within the realm of possibility that there will be some acquisition that most of us aren’t expecting. Dave Dombrowski does get quite creative at that. In the past, he’s traded for guys I have thought of as possibilities to fill needs (Renteria and Laird; hey, all I said was that they were names I thought of, not necessarily that they worked out, though in Laird’s case I’m happy with the result). At the same time, he’s gotten guys that I wasn’t expecting that have made huge impacts on the team (Cabrera and Jackson). So if you think you’ve got this offseason figured out, you probably don’t.
Like I said, at this point, there’s little more to do than speculate. I still don’t have a good impression of how next season will go. Hopefully I’ll get a better gut feeling as we get closer to spring training. In the meantime, feel free to hang around the site. I’ll be filling you in on my postseason thoughts, and whenever the Tigers DO make a move, I’ll weigh in on it as well. I’ve also got a feature planned where I’ll be comparing the 2010 schedules of the AL Central teams month-by-month. So stay tuned.