It comes back to the same question the Tigers have faced with Santiago for years: Is he a valuable utility infielder, or an everyday player? Now that Santiago is a free agent, the Tigers aren't the only ones who get to answer.
"You look at a guy like Ramon Santiago, who we like and has done a really good job for us, and we would like to have him back," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Tuesday in an end-of-season interview with reporters. "But it wouldn't surprise me if someone stepped up and offered him an everyday role and the type of dollars that he's looking to receive somewhere else. You can understand that -- that's what free agency is all about."
It's not always about the money. In Santiago's case, it could well come down to the role.
The Tigers have a handful of free agents this offseason, many of whom have been vital players for years. But while Dombrowski said the Tigers "most likely" won't re-sign Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen, and won't pursue starter Brad Penny, Santiago is one of maybe two players Dombrowski indicated could return.
Joel Zumaya, the hard-throwing reliever who hasn't pitched in a game since July 2010 due to elbow problems, is one possibility. Zumaya said last month during the American League Division Series that he wants to return, and Dombrowski said he would be open to bringing him back on a Minor League contract with a non-roster invitation to Spring Training.
"I don't know that you can say you can 100 percent count on where he is at this time," Dombrowski said of Zumaya, who had been rehabbing at the Tigers' Spring Training complex and pitching in instructional league games last month.
Dombrowski didn't eliminate the possibility of bringing back Wilson Betemit, who shared time at third base down the stretch after his July trade from Kansas City, but didn't analyze it as a priority.
"I'd say we're open," Dombrowski said, "but it would not be a move that we'd be driven to make right at the very beginning."
If the Tigers brought Zumaya back, they wouldn't put themselves in a spot where they needed him to come back. If he emerged from camp healthy, he would be a bonus. That's far from the situation with Santiago.
Detroit knows what it has had in the 32-year-old switch-hitter, who has played at least 93 games in each of the last three seasons and spent stints as a regular in the middle infield each year. When the Tigers made their late-season run to the AL Central title and later to the AL Championship Series, Santiago was their primary second baseman.
However, the Tigers haven't gone into a season with Santiago as a regular since 2003, and they have no plans on doing so now. The belief among club officials has always been that Santiago wears down if he plays every day for long stretches. Santiago has put in a lot of effort on offseason conditioning to try to defy the notion, but his situation in Detroit hasn't changed.
That said, Santiago has played 213 games over the last two years, taking the bulk of the playing time through Detroit's revolving door at second base. The Tigers would like to find a full-time second baseman this winter, but Dombrowski admitted that the free-agent market is not "real strong" and said the Tigers could explore trades.
"Second base and third base are probably the two areas that will get the most of our attention," Dombrowski said. "Those are two areas, where if you talk about getting better, we can get better production at those spots."
Dombrowski also left open the possibility of a platoon at either second or third. They still have Ryan Raburn under contract for 2012, but Dombrowski doesn't see him as an everyday player at second, either. If Santiago returns, he could platoon with Raburn at second, allowing the Tigers to pursue an everyday player at third base.
"I think our feeling has been that we just don't see him as the guy going out there and playing -- we may be wrong -- 150 games a year," Dombrowski said of Santiago. "We just don't happen to see him as that guy, and we may be wrong. He's done a very fine job for us and we like him a lot, but that's not the role we see him in. If we thought he was our everyday second baseman, we'd go out and we'd make that move."
Santiago said last month that he would like to stay in Detroit, but he also didn't hide his desire to play more often. He also recently changed agents, hiring Diego Bentz of SFX to represent him on the open market.
Santiago's previous agents, Sam and Seth Levinson, negotiated his just-completed two-year contract with the Tigers back when he was eligible for arbitration but not free agency. The Levinsons and agent Keith Miller also negotiated two-year deals last fall for shortstop Jhonny Peralta and third baseman Brandon Inge.
The change of agents doesn't necessarily rule out Santiago's return. Bentz and fellow agent Fernando Cuza negotiated Miguel Cabrera's eight-year extension with the Tigers four years ago. But at the very least, it seemingly indicates a plan to test the market. As a switch-hitter with strong defense, Santiago could be valuable to several contending teams as a utility player. He could also find interest from other clubs in a more regular role, if not every day.
Thus, the Tigers' best chance at re-signing Santiago would probably be later in the offseason, if he's still unsigned.