With owner Mike Ilitch looking to win now while other teams look for long-term contention, the Tigers have gone beyond the perception of a perennial contender. They are now on the level of big-market club, capable of battling bigger-city teams for top players after beating out the Dodgers for Prince Fielder last winter and swooping in to swipe Torii Hunter last month before the Yankees could ever get involved.
Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski used to struggle to get agents' attention at meetings like these when he took over the Tigers a decade ago. Now, he has the team that agents hope to get involved with their players, because they know Detroit can spend.
The Tigers don't have a lot they need to spend on at these meetings, but that won't keep them from the center of conversation around the lobby at the gigantic Gaylord Opryland Resort. The last time they went to work here, they put together a deal for Miguel Cabrera that changed the course of the franchise. If they can figure out their rotation, with or without Anibal Sanchez, maybe add a role player or two and figure out how seriously they want to swap shortstops, then they'll be fine.
An answer from Anibal: The Tigers aren't in the market for a front-line starting pitcher. They haven't been in the top end of the market for free-agent starters in years. They're just in the market for Sanchez, whose pitching in Detroit's rotation down the stretch turned the club into a postseason pitching powerhouse. If Sanchez gets the $120-plus million contract some have forecast for him, the Tigers will likely wish him good luck. If the market keeps them in it, though, they're hoping Sanchez's comfort level in Detroit tugs at him to stick around for the long term.
Closer: Rafael Soriano is the top closer on the market, but he isn't getting a whole lot of interested teams at his contract level. The Tigers are the one team that could do it -- they're the top contender with an opening at closer -- but Dombrowski points to prospect Bruce Rondon as being on the verge of taking the role. Dombrowski says it would take the right situation for the Tigers to sign somebody; that situation might not happen until after the holidays. This could last longer than the Johnny Damon saga three winters ago, and that went on for six weeks.
Right-handed-hitting outfielder: On paper, the potential for an Andy Dirks platoon with Avisail Garcia in left field looks really good. However, Dombrowski cautioned that Garcia couldn't simply make the team as the short end of a platoon. He also said he'd like to add a veteran right-handed hitter as an option. Detroit had interest last summer in Reed Johnson, who's now a free agent. This is where the Tigers could still throw the market a curve and go after an impact bat if the situation's right and stack their lineup further.
Defense at shortstop: They really don't need a shortstop, and the guy they have (Jhonny Peralta) was among the American League leaders at his position in Ultimate Zone Rating. But what the Tigers saw with their own eyes concerned them. They're looking at potential defensive upgrades, and it wouldn't be a shock if they got something done at the Winter Meetings. It could be Stephen Drew if they could sign him on their terms (short term), or it could be a trade somewhere. If not, they still have Peralta, though they might have to smooth things over with him a bit.
Insurance catcher: With Gerald Laird gone, the Tigers are ready to trust young Bryan Holaday with the job of backing up Alex Avila. They'd still like to add a veteran as an insurance option in the mold of Omir Santos or Dane Sardinha, someone who could be stashed at Triple-A just in case.
Who they can or need to trade
OF Brennan Boesch: They'd be selling awfully low on a left-handed slugger who was hitting the right-field seats with regularity two years ago, but the roster numbers might lead them to do it. With Hunter taking over in right field, Boesch either has to beat out Dirks for playing time in left or he has to find his game again in the Minor Leagues. Detroit should find interest for him among younger teams in need of some offensive punch, but probably wouldn't get a massive return.
SS Peralta: If the Tigers acquire another shortstop, Peralta will be dealt. They don't have another infield spot to play him. The D-backs reportedly have had interest since last summer, and other teams looking for left-side infielders are likely to step up and take a look. Offensively, he's a good pick for a rebound.
RHP Rick Porcello: If the Tigers don't re-sign Sanchez, Porcello and Drew Smyly will round out their rotation. If Sanchez re-signs, though, Detroit has a decision to make on its fifth starter. With Porcello's salary rising through arbitration and his sinker seemingly better fit for a stronger infield defense, he would be the likely pitcher to go.
SS Danny Worth: If the Tigers are debating going for defense at shortstop, and Worth isn't in the conversation, it can't possibly be a good sign for him. He actually has one minor league option left, but with Ramon Santiago under contract for next season, the Tigers would probably have to eat Santiago's $2.1 million salary to open a spot for Worth.
OF/3B Nick Castellanos: He's a converted third baseman who was blocked by Cabrera's return to the hot corner until the Tigers moved him to the corner outfield spots last summer. He's not quite ready for the big leagues yet, but he's not far off, and his pure hitting is expected to make him an impact player when he gets there. In a league where good young third basemen are increasingly hard to find, teams covet him. So, however, do the Tigers.
OF Garcia: Until this summer, Garcia was a five-tool outfielder trying to translate his ability into a breakout season in the middle levels of the Tigers' farm system. Come October, he was starting in right field in Detroit in the World Series. He wasn't necessarily ready, according to Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland, but he was the best right-handed hitter they had for the job, and he made a big impact. Now the Tigers have to figure out whether he's best off getting more seasoning at Toledo or learning on the job in Detroit.
RP Rondon: Not only is this 260-pound Venezuelan the best relief prospect to come through the Tigers' system since at least Joel Zumaya (who was a starter in the Minors), he's the best candidate Detroit has at the moment to close games next season. That could change soon, but Rondon is the reason they're not particularly interested in signing any closer to a long-term contract. With a 102-mph fastball, good offspeed pitches and a body built to take the wear and tear, he's really that good.
Big contracts they might unload
Contracts aren't going to be a big issue with this team as long as they're in win-now mode. They could try to do something with Santiago's $2.1 million contract for next year, but in the big picture of the Tigers' payroll, it's a fraction.
Arbitration-eligible: C Avila ($510,000 in 2012), OF Boesch ($502,500), LHP Phil Coke ($1.1 million), RHP Doug Fister ($507,500), CF Austin Jackson ($500,000, RHP Porcello ($3.1 million), RHP Max Scherzer ($3.75 million).
Payroll summation The Tigers crept back over $130 million in payroll this past season, largely due to the Fielder signing last winter, and they're on track to cross $140 million and set a franchise record, whether or not they re-sign Sanchez. Ilitch doesn't operate the team with a set payroll in mind, and with his first World Series title his expressed goal at age 83, he's willing to spend to get it.