The Tigers suffered a stinging defeat in the World Series, being swept by the Giants as quickly and decisively as they themselves dispatched the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. As with the Yankees, the sweep exposed flaws in Detroit’s roster that it will have all winter to focus upon, but nonetheless the team does have a strong chance of contending next year with a very similar cast to this one.
It helps, of course, that the Tigers play in the AL Central, where they were one of just two teams to win more than 72 games. The Royals, Indians and Twins are all in various stages of disrepair, having underachieved significantly in 2012, and while they all stand a chance of improving simply by regressing to the mean, it's difficult to take any of them seriously as contenders. The White Sox, on the other hand, held a share of first place for 126 days this season, including all of August and most of September; by comparison, the Tigers held a share of first for just 46 days, not taking sole possession until Sept. 26. The two teams figure to battle for division superiority next year with relatively little distraction.
The first question the Tigers face is whether manager Jim Leyland will return, as the 67-year-old skipper's contract just expired. Before the Tigers retook first place in late September, Leyland was said to be on the hot seat, with general manager Dave Dombrowski mulling whether to renew or replace him, but a second pennant in seven seasons certainly boosts his odds of a return. Leyland has presided over the renewal of baseball in Detroit, managing the Tigers to three playoff appearances, two division titles and a .535 winning percentage (an average of 87 wins a year) during his tenure, and sounds as though he wants to continue managing. Both he and Dombrowski are likely to let the dust settle before finalizing their plans.
As for the rest of the roster, their biggest stars aren't going anywhere. Prince Fielder is signed through 2020, Miguel Cabrera through 2015, and Justin Verlander through 2014. That trio will receive roughly $64 million in 2013, as they did this year, just under half of the team's $133.5 million payroll, and in all the team has $90.2 million already committed, not including arbitration-based raises or option pickups. They've also got at least $25 million coming off the books in the form of free agents, which gives them money to play with.
The best news for the Tigers is the return of Victor Martinez, who missed all of 2012 with what was initially believed to be a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee; instead he needed microfracture surgery. He's due $13 million in 2013 and another $12 million in 2014, and will likely retake the DH slot, with Delmon Young, who made $6.375 million, departing via free agency.
Despite Young’s postseason heroics (four homers apiece during their past two playoff runs in 2011 and ‘12), he's coming off a season in which hit just .267/.296/.411 and was 0.9 wins below replacement level according to Baseball Prospectus' WARP -- his second year in a row in the red. He also got into a fair bit of hot water with an April arrest involving public intoxication and anti-Semitic remarks. Martinez hit a sizzling .330/.380 /.470 in 2011, his first year in Detroit, and is a career .303/.370/.469 hitter, a huge upgrade even if he can no longer contribute much defensively; he caught 26 games in 2011, but the Tigers may opt to steer him away from the tools of ignorance.
Martinez's presence likely means the return of Cabrera to third base, where he was below average, but not by nearly as much as expected; the four major systems valued his work at the hot corner anywhere from -2 to -10 runs, certainly surmountable with his offensive contributions. The Tigers could seek a slicker-fielding shortstop to anchor the left side, but they do hold a $6 million club option on Jhonny Peralta's services. The 30-year-old shortstop had a down year with the bat (.239/.305/.384), but he was actually average or even slightly above according to the defensive metrics, and his bat came alive in the first two rounds of the postseason. Second baseman Omar Infante, also 30, is signed for $4 million through next season; he's coming off a mediocre season with the bat as well (.274/.300/.419), though the major defensive metrics were in his favor, too.
The temptation to go cheap and retain the status quo will be strong, but the Tigers finished second-to-last in the league in defensive efficiency (.678), 16 points below league average, and they'd be well-served with some kind of upgrade up the middle. Backup Ramon Santiago is signed for $2.1 million, and Danny Worth is under club control, but neither is fit for full-time duty.
Behind the plate, Alex Avila will enter his first year of arbitration eligibility, and figures not only to get a sizable raise from his $510,000 salary but a multi-year deal that may lock in cost certainty through the next few years. Backup Gerald Laird, who made $1 million, is a free agent whose return is up in the air; he has played with the team for three of the past four seasons, and familiarity and affordability may lead to his return, though the team's view of Martinez's capability behind the plate might be a factor.
The key piece in the outfield, centerfielder Austin Jackson, is in the same situation as Avila, arbitration eligible and due at least a raise above his $500,000 salary and more appropriately a multi-year deal. As a study I did at Baseball Prospectus confirmed, teams with up-the-middle players who are strong offensively are at a great advantage when it comes to building winners, and in Jackson and Avila the Tigers have a pair who can be part of their foundation for years to come.
The outfield corners are where the Tigers can and should look to upgrade. Andy Dirks had a hot partial season (.322/.370/.487 in 344 plate appearances) but nothing in his track record suggests he can sustain that. Toolsy 21-year-old Avisail Garcia rocketed from High-A to the majors in 2012, but his combined 105/20 strikeout-to-unintentional-walk ratio suggests major holes in his approach. He was able to shorten his long swing with some success late in the year, but there's still work to be done, and asking him to carry the bulk of the chores at a corner for the whole season may be a stretch.
Twenty-seven-year-old rookie Quintin Berry is still living off a hot intro to the majors; he batted just .218/.270/.293 in the second half, and profiles better as a spare part. Ryan Raburn and Brennan Boesch both had such terrible seasons that they were left off the postseason roster, and could be nontendered. The bottom line is that the team would be well-served by scaring up one more solid bat for one outfield corner, and let things shake out as they may among those on hand -- all cheap and under club control -- at the other.
As for the rotation beyond Verlander, the Tigers are in good shape. Max Scherzer is entering his second year of arbitration eligibility, and figures to get a big raise from his $3.75 million salary; on the strength of a breakout year in which he led the league in strikeout rate, a longer-term deal is probably something both player and team will seek. The same goes for Doug Fister, who is entering his first year of arbitration eligibility and has emerged as a strong mid-rotation pitcher.
Rick Porcello, who made $3.1 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility at age 23, is a murkier case. He doesn't miss many bats (a career high of 5.5 strikeouts per nine), making him a poor fit for this team; thanks to a searing .345 batting average on balls in play, he led the league in hits allowed (226) and posted a 4.59 ERA. The Tigers could opt to save a few million dollars by trading him, given the presence not only of Drew Smyly, who pitched well in 99 1/3 innings as a rookie, but also well-regarded prospect Casey Crosby and swingman Duane Below. Anibal Sanchez is a free agent who's likely looking at a big payday -- perhaps a $40-$50 million deal, or even higher -- in a weak free agent market where several big-spending teams will likely be players nonetheless; he could be the biggest loss from this team, but hardly an irreplaceable one.
The bullpen, which proved shaky during the postseason, will likely sport a new look in 2013. Closer Jose Valverde, who imploded in the playoffs, is a 34-year-old free agent who made $9 million in the final year of a three-year, $23 million deal, but doesn't figure to be worth that kind of money again. His strikeout rate plummeted from 8.6 per nine to 6.3 from 2011 to 2012 even before his postseason woes cost him his ninth-inning role.
Top setup man Joaquin Benoit, due $5.5 million in the final year of his deal, could be a candidate to take over as closer, but he's coming off a season in which he was lit for a fluky 1.8 homers per nine. Lefty Phil Coke, who became the closer in the ALCS, is likely too vulnerable against righties to serve in the role full-time, but as he's just entering his second year of arb eligibility, he'll be a key part of next year's bullpen. Righty specialist Octavio Dotel has a $3.5 million club option and a $0.5 million buyout; coming off a strong season, he figures to return. The Tigers should also have a full season of Al Alburquerque, who was limited to just eight regular season appearances this year; he's under club control. The bottom line is that the Tigers figure to have back most of the key players from their pennant-winning club, with the notable return of Martinez a significant boost. Still, Dombrowski must avoid complacency by fixing the holes that need fixing -- middle infield, the outfield corners and the bullpen -- to give Detroit its best chance at making it back to the World Series.