Tigers weigh options to upgrade outfield corners

Tigers weigh options to upgrade outfield corners

DETROIT -- The last two Tigers offseasons have been centered around the star hitter, from Victor Martinez two years ago to Prince Fielder last winter. This could be the offseason of the piece.

The Tigers have the stars, and they have the middle of their order set. Now, they're looking to fill around it. The question is how.

Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski saw the same offensive struggles from his team that Tigers fans did. It wasn't just in the postseason -- it was for much of the 2012 season.

Dombrowski saw a team struggle to manufacture runs, not simply through bunts and advancing baserunners but also through runners taking an extra base on a hit.

The lineup, barring a surprise, is largely set. The notable exception is in the corner-outfield spots.

"Really, when you look at it [in terms of] athleticism, you're not going to do much at catcher, first, second, third, center," Dombrowski said. "You could be more athletic at shortstop. But then, it really comes to the two corner spots. But when you say that, you'd also like to ideally have somebody that can drive in runs. So which way do you go? And I think that's an evaluation. We've got a big ballpark. You need to play good defense."

Manager Jim Leyland had a similar tone.

"We won't ever be a perfect team," Leyland said, "but I think we can get better. I tell you guys all the time, and I mean this, it's tricky how you put your team together. There's always a fine line between enough stars and one too many. So I think we need that right piece, that certain type of piece here or there -- just one or two, maybe -- that would possibly make the difference, because we're in very good shape."

Most likely, it would be one piece. Even if the Tigers didn't see Andy Dirks as an everyday outfielder, and that debate still goes on, Detroit could fill one corner by mixing him with a right-handed-hitting outfielder such as postseason hero Avisail Garcia or Nick Castellanos, the club's No. 1 prospect, according to MLB.com.

"Dirks is a good player," Dombrowski said. "Is he an everyday player at this point? I don't know. He might be. I know he's a real good player. Can you combine with somebody? I think we'll just kind of look at that."

Whatever the degree, Dombrowski sees Dirks as part of the lineup, potentially hitting second between leadoff man Austin Jackson and No. 3 hitter Miguel Cabrera. That leaves one corner spot open.

In that regard, the Tigers will have some flexibility, but they have to figure out what they want out of an addition. At this point, slugger Josh Hamilton seems like he can be ruled out. Dombrowski said he isn't expecting to go after a big-money free agent. Fortunately for the Tigers, at least a handful of free-agent outfielders could provide the production they need without a megadeal.

From afar, the Tigers have watched Torii Hunter star with the Twins and Angels for years. He's established himself as a right-handed hitter with 20-homer power who has aged gracefully into a consistent run producer and still-stellar defender at age 37. Hunter's career numbers at Comerica Park are below his standards, but his game fits the place well.

The Angels are expected to make a push to bring back Hunter on a short-term deal. If he hits the open market this weekend, he'll have no shortage of suitors among contending teams. Among the clubs rumored to be interested are his hometown Texas Rangers, who could have to find a way to replace Hamilton.

Another potential short-term option with a long list of potential suitors is Cody Ross, who began his career nine years ago with the Tigers before being traded. Ross became one of baseball's best bargains this past season, when he drove in 81 runs while hitting .267 with 34 doubles, 22 homers and an .807 on-base plus slugging percentage for the Red Sox after signing a one-year, $3 million deal.

Even with his 32nd birthday coming up in December, Ross will not be such a bargain this offseason, and the Red Sox are expected to make every effort to bring him back. But his situation could be worth watching.

Both Hunter and Ross are right-handed hitters. Shane Victorino is a switch-hitter and a different kind of offensive contributor, having led the National League in triples in two of the last four seasons while averaging 30 doubles a year. His 39 stolen bases in 2012 between the Phillies and Dodgers marked a career high, though his .255 average and .704 OPS were career lows. Victorino's a free agent who will turn 32 at the end of November, and the Dodgers have an abundance of outfielders.

The trade market could also be a possibility, especially if the Tigers are successful in their efforts to keep starter Anibal Sanchez. Bringing back the right-hander would leave them with six starters for five spots.

The Tigers' .735 OPS from their left fielders this past season ranked them eighth in the 14-team American League. Their .641 OPS from right fielders, however, ranked last. Most of that came from the combination of Brennan Boesch and Ryan Raburn, two players still on the roster and without any particular roles going into next year.

Detroit had its share of struggles from other spots, of course, especially catcher Alex Avila and shortstop Jhonny Peralta. But Dombrowski believes production at the outfield corners could go a long way toward addressing that.

"I think even though both of them did not have as good of offensive years as we would hope, if you get more production out of your corner outfielders, their production is not bad for a catcher or a shortstop," Dombrowski said.

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.