Tigers could spend to improve on ALCS berth

Tigers could spend to improve on ALCS berth

DETROIT -- The Tigers' postseason run hadn't even started when owner Mike Ilitch hinted at adding on for next season.

"I want to be in a position to make one or two additions," Ilitch told Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News at the end of September. "And generally, they're pretty big additions."

Little more than two weeks later, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski talked at the end of the Tigers' run to the American League Championship Series about not being satisfied with where they're at.

"It's a good situation to be in," Dombrowski said. "I mean, you'd rather be like that. But I also think you're going to do things to try to get better, too. And I think the game, a fine line separates clubs, so when you start getting content where you are, that can come back and haunt you. So that's not where we're going to be. I think we're going to be in a position where we'll look to get better."

If there were any question about the Tigers' commitment to building off their run to the ALCS, they were answered. The real question is whether the Tigers can find more building blocks on the market where they need it. The free agency period begins tonight at 11:01 p.m. CT.

It isn't a particularly deep market where the Tigers have room to upgrade. While Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols and Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder are two of the best hitters in the game, they don't fit on a team that has Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez at first base and designated hitter, respectively, and Cabrera and Justin Verlander making $20 million next season. The Rangers' C.J. Wilson is a gifted left-handed pitcher, as is CC Sabathia, but while the Tigers have exclusively right-handers rotation, they already have front-line starters and a top-10 prospect knocking on the door of the big leagues.

Detroit has a deep middle of the order that carries run production into the bottom third of the lineup. The Tigers have three projected starting outfielders all age 26 or younger and four starting pitchers all under age 30 and under team control for at least the next three years. They don't have a whole lot of holes, but as close as they came to the World Series with a team of players on career upswings, they have a vested interest in filling them.

The Tigers would like to stop the revolving door at second base. They could go for more offense at third base if they could do that with a reasonable upgrade. They could use a leadoff hitter to take pressure off of Austin Jackson, if they could fit that addition into the lineup.

The Mets' Jose Reyes and the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins are two free-agent shortstops who could fit a leadoff role, but both arguably have more value to their old clubs than they do elsewhere, in part because of their markets. It appears questionable at best whether the Tigers would want to risk Jhonny Peralta's production by moving him out of his most comfortable position and back to third base, where he was less productive in Cleveland before the trade to Detroit 15 months ago.

The Tigers also have a handful of their own free agents, one of whom could be a fit at second. Ramon Santiago held the job for most of the stretch run, after all, and he could platoon there with Ryan Raburn for another year if the Tigers chose to go that direction. But that doesn't seem like the Tigers' main goal. Other than Santiago, the one free agent with a real chance to return could be reliever Joel Zumaya, who has been working on a comeback with the Tigers in the Florida instructional league and wants to stay in the organization.

Contract issues
Free agents: IF Carlos Guillen, RF Magglio Ordonez, RHP Brad Penny, IF Santiago, RHP Zumaya.

Eligible for arbitration: LHP Phil Coke, IF/OF Don Kelly, RHP Rick Porcello, RHP Max Scherzer, LHP Brad Thomas, OF Delmon Young.

Areas of need
Fifth starter: The Tigers could turn the job over to top prospect Jacob Turner, who made three spot starts in 2011 at age 20, but manager Jim Leyland questioned at season's end whether Turner needs a little more seasoning. At the very least, the Tigers will hit the market looking for somebody to compete for the job and push Turner. More likely, the Tigers want somebody to hold down the role until Turner is ready, either for a partial season or even until year's end. A lefty would be helpful in the club's rotation, but unless the Tigers are spending big here, they can't be that choosy.

Second base: The Tigers have had a revolving door going at second ever since letting Placido Polanco walk two years ago, including five different starting second basemen in 2011. They'd no doubt like to settle on one name for 2012. The problem is that the second base market isn't that deep, and even leading names Aaron Hill and Kelly Johnson come with questions and don't come off their best seasons. The Tigers could look to fill this spot with a trade if they find an opportunity.

Third base: Will the Tigers go into next season with Brandon Inge back as the starter, or will they go in another direction? If they do the latter, what do they do with Inge? It's an simpler decision if they can acquire a top-level infielder on the market. If not, that becomes a much tougher debate, given both Inge's still strong defense and the $5.5 million he has coming to him next season.

Middle relief: Coke's late-season success sets him as the primary lefty alongside Daniel Schlereth, but the Tigers have to figure out a right-handed middle man, which is where their lack of depth killed them in the ALCS. Al Alburquerque or Ryan Perry could be the guys, but their inconsistencies create some questions. The Tigers don't necessarily have to do anything in the offseason to shore this up, but they'll need to know their answers by the stretch run next year if they're going to make another postseason run.

Payroll
The last time the Tigers came this close to winning, their payroll ballooned from $86 million in 2006 to $137 million two years later, but they fell further and further away from contention. With player salaries around $107 million this year, they found a middle ground, and while Ilitch talked about making one or two more big acquisitions, that doesn't mean they're headed back toward the bloated payroll. Some of that went to bad contracts that hampered the team for years after and provided lessons going forward. They lose $23 million with expiring contracts for Ordonez and Guillen, but Justin Verlander's salary increase to $20 million will take up a chunk of that. Add in arbitration raises, and Detroit still has room for a good addition, maybe two, without raising payroll.

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.