Tigers begin to evaluate how best to achieve goal

Tigers begin to evaluate how best to achieve goal

BOSTON -- Four more wins, the Tigers proclaimed as they headed to Spring Training. They weren't talking about the regular season, or even the American League Championship Series. They were talking World Series.

They fell two wins shy of getting the chance. In the end, they received one big reminder why nothing in baseball is guaranteed.

As they head into an offseason with a handful of free agents, a series of questions about where they fell short and a general discussion about whether this team is best suited to win it all, the uncertainty is about to extend into the offseason.

Just the uncertainty over how to describe this season shows what kind of a task building off of it is going to be.

ALDS

"When you get to this point in the year, the expectations are always high," said Justin Verlander. "The expectations were high coming into Spring Training, about as high as they could possibly be. But once you get to the playoffs, it's a grind, and you can't say, 'OK, we're going to make it to the World Series.' You don't just say that and end up there. You have to play the games."

Verlander is a certainty, one season into a contract guaranteed through 2019. Prince Fielder and Anibal Sanchez are in the early years of long-term contracts. Most of the roster after that is either approaching free agency or arbitration.

That's what happens when teams are good for a while, and it's a big reason why great teams are tough to keep together. Starting next week, the Tigers have some decisions to make on how much they can keep together, and how much they need or want to change.

The first decision will be manager Jim Leyland, who's year-to-year contract is up again. Every indication from team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski has been that Leyland will manage this team if he wants to return, and he said as much during the AL Division Series. Leyland has said at different points this year that he wants to keep managing. Most likely, that should come together early next week.

That should be the quickest part of the offseason. Once the World Series ends comes the real challenge on the player side.

As soon as the final out of the Fall Classic is made, a half-dozen Tigers are eligible to file for free agency. Closer Joaquin Benoit, second baseman Omar Infante and shortstop-turned-outfielder Jhonny Peralta top the list.

Benoit talked about next season like he's a part of it, but he knows it's not that simple.

"I feel really proud of all the guys here, he said. "I think everybody did their best. Hopefully, next year we continue to get better."

As a 36-year-old proven setup man that now has closing experience on his resume, he has the potential to be in demand as a short-term fix. On the flip side, as the point man for a bullpen that became a glaring weakness in the postseason, he has the potential to find his spot taken if the Tigers change course and bring in a high-profile closer.

"I don't want to think about it right now," Benoit said. "I want to digest this and see what's going to happen later on."

Infante's change of agents with a month to go in the season made his status clear. His past year and a half in Detroit re-established the 31-year-old's standing among the better second basemen in the game, and gave him a chance to draw heavy interest around the Majors.

With the ALCS loss still fresh, he was thinking only about a return to Detroit.

"I want to be back," Infante said. "I love this team. This organization has a lot of good players, Miguel [Cabrera], Victor Martinez, Prince, too, Torii Hunter. Great team. That's why I want to come back. But it's business. I have to wait, and we'll see what happens."

Peralta could become one of baseball's most fascinating free-agent cases this winter, a player whose stellar postseason re-established his market coming out of his 50-game suspension in August and September. The Tigers don't need him at shortstop with Jose Iglesias around, but they arguably need the bat.

Backup catcher Brayan Pena is also a free agent, his one-year contract having expired.

"I want to be back here," he said. "Money's not an issue. I feel like I want to be here."

To that end, Pena said he wants to lose weight and prove he can handle the spot. Whether the Tigers opt to bring back the switch-hitter or go with young Bryan Holaday in the role, as they originally planned going into last offseason, remains to be seen.

Utility infielder Ramon Santiago is also up for free agency, which could end the 34-year-old's reign as the longest-tenured Tiger if Detroit opts to stay in-house with prospect Hernan Perez or Triple-A stalwart Danny Worth for the role.

Keeping even Benoit and Infante might not be easy. It's simple, however, compared to the challenge of Tigers nearing free agency who need to be considered for extensions.

Cy Young Award favorite Max Scherzer's breakout season came with free agency only a year away, putting him in line to hit next winter's market as the prize of the class. If the Tigers want him long term, they'd have to find a way to fit another max-contract player into the team's current payroll structure. If they can't make it work, they have to decide whether to go all-in for next season and keep him, knowing they could lose him next winter with only a Draft pick as compensation, or shop him on the trade market to fill other holes.

The Tigers will most likely explore a new contract to some extent. But a trade, as CBSSports.com reported earlier this month, isn't that far-fetched.

Scherzer isn't thinking about it for now.

"That stuff works itself out," he said. "There's really not much for me to say about it."

Among the players with two years left before free agency are three-time batting champion Cabrera, starters Rick Porcello and Doug Fister, center fielder Austin Jackson and catcher Alex Avila.

The Tigers won't re-sign them all. They won't even necessarily decide on them all. They could push for long-term deals for some. They'll almost certainly try to extend Cabrera. The question is how much that will require.

Add it all up, and six more wins might be the easiest math the Tigers face this winter.

"I know Dave Dombrowski will do what he has to do to make things better," Hunter said. "And I do think we have areas where we can make ourselves better, and next year we'll come ready to play. We still have the team intact, we still have a good ballclub, and I expect to be right back in this position next year."

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.