Tigers have questions, but answers abound

Tigers have questions, but answers abound

DETROIT -- The Tigers head into 2011 with more questions than they've probably had in any winter since '03. But between an influx of young talent and more than $50 million in contracts coming off the payroll, they have more potential answers than they've had in a longer time than that.

The combination of the two makes the Tigers one of the most interesting teams in baseball to watch this offseason, and a team undergoing a generational change. They could enter next spring with just two or three players -- Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya, possibly Zach Miner as well -- still around from the 2006 team that went to the World Series. The players who fill those places could fill out the team that finally gets back to the postseason for the first time since that magical year.

If they get back, it'll most likely be on the strength of their "big three" starting pitchers. With Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello all under team control through 2014, and all in different stages of joining the league's elite arms, Detroit has the foundation to contend for several years if it can find some offense to support Miguel Cabrera and some help at a couple other key spots.

"This organization is in good shape," manager Jim Leyland said. "It's got some good young players. It's got some good veteran players. It's got great fans. It's got great ownership. And it's in good shape. And yes, I think it's a team that can compete. I think we came into this year thinking we could compete, and we did."

They go into next season thinking they should contend. For all the questions they face, their key positions are largely set, from their front-end rotation to their closer to their leadoff and cleanup batters. Defensively, they're a double-play combination short of being set up the middle with catcher Alex Avila and center fielder Austin Jackson.

They have the versatility to fit in a middle-of-the-order hitter in a number of different traditional power spots -- both corner outfield positions are wide open, as is designated hitter, and the left side of the infield is only slightly clearer -- and they have the payroll space to attract him. What they don't have is the luxury of a deep market for impact offensive players.

"It's not particularly a gorgeous free-agent list," Leyland said. "But it doesn't take much for this club. This club has a chance to be real good. How many people are going to be going after some of that list? You don't know until you get into some type of financial bidding war, I guess. I don't know that we're going to do that. I think it's one of those years where you try to pick the right piece at the right price, and we don't need many pieces."

Contract issues
Free agents: Jeremy Bonderman, RHP; Johnny Damon, OF; Brandon Inge, 3B; Gerald Laird, C; Bobby Seay, LHP.
Eligible for arbitration: Armando Galarraga, RHP; Zach Miner, RHP; Ryan Raburn, IF/OF; Joel Zumaya, RHP.
Player options: None.
Club options: Magglio Ordonez, OF, $15 million; Jhonny Peralta, IF, $7.25 million.
Non-tender possibilities: Miner, Zumaya.

Position-by-position look at where the 2010 roster stands going into 2011. The arrows represent how the player's 2010 season compared to 2009.

Alex Avila
Gerald Laird

Avila's performance in close to everyday duty down the stretch suggests he performs better when he plays regularly. His performed well enough that he'll get the majority of the starts next year. That leaves the Tigers looking for a veteran, preferably a right-handed hitter, to back up and possibly share time in stretches.

First base
Miguel Cabrera
As difficult as it is to imagine Cabrera doing much more than he did for the Tigers this season, it's feasible if they can find a proven power hitter to bat behind him and keep some healthy hitters to reach base in front of him. Lineup protection is one of the Tigers' primary offseason targets.

Second base
Carlos Guillen
Will Rhymes
Scott Sizemore

Guillen may or may not be ready to start next season after microfracture surgery on his knee. If he is, he isn't likely to be at second base, at least not as the regular starter. Guillen could end up shifting around at a few different positions in a superutility role, unless the Tigers have a need.

Jhonny Peralta
Danny Worth

Whether the Tigers pick up Peralta's option or sign him to a new contract altogether, they want him back at short, and they'll have him on an offseason workout plan to do it. His standout offensive production and reliable glove down the stretch convinced the Tigers they could live with his below-average range, especially if they have a rangier third baseman beside him.

Third base
Brandon Inge

Staying with the Tigers is clearly Inge's first preference, and the fact that the Tigers offered him a multi-year contract in the season's final week makes it a likelihood. Inge's range gives the Tigers a better chance of using Peralta at short without a significant defensive dropoff, though Inge will be 34 next season and his bat is what it is.

Brennan Boesch
Austin Jackson
Don Kelly
Magglio Ordonez
Ryan Raburn
Casper Wells

It's a big group, but Jackson is the only member of it with a spot assured for next season. The Tigers believe Ordonez still has it with the bat, but must decide how much ankle surgery will limit, and at what cost they're willing to bring him back after declining his option. He could end up more of a DH. Boesch and Wells will compete for spots, possibly in a mix at one corner. Raburn is in line for close to a regular role, according to Dombrowski.

Designated hitter
Johnny Damon
Damon hit well enough to find a regular role, but it won't be in Detroit, which will open up a spot for the big hitter they're expected to pursue on the market.

Jeremy Bonderman
Armando Galarraga
Rick Porcello
Max Scherzer
Justin Verlander

It's quite a benefit to look at a roster in September and be able to write in the top three spots of next year's rotation in ink rather than pencil. Verlander, Scherzer and Porcello should be at least the best starting trio in the division, and one of the tops in the league. The Tigers have tabbed reliever Phil Coke for the rotation next year to add a lefty arm. The fifth spot is potentially wide open. Andy Oliver is expected to get a chance to compete for a spot after his brief summer internship as the fifth starter this year, while the Tigers might have a decision to make on the arbitration-eligible Galarraga. Fellow prospect Charlie Furbush could be a dark-horse candidate with a strong Spring Training.

Eddie Bonine
Phil Coke
Alfredo Figaro
Zach Miner
Ryan Perry
Daniel Schlereth
Bobby Seay
Jose Valverde
Robbie Weinhardt

Joel Zumaya
Despite injuries up and down the farm system among relief prospects, the Tigers have the depth to build a young corps around their veteran closer and an experienced setup man or two that they'll seek on the market. Schlereth and Weinhardt took major steps forward in their first seasons as Tigers, while Perry found some much-needed consistency towards season's end. Team offcials are optimistic on Zumaya's return, but not enough to count on him to open next season.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.