DETROIT -- The Tigers will head into 2014 still built as a team to win now. That hasn't changed for the past few years. But for the first time, you can see when the window starts closing on the current group.
It's not a team getting old; age isn't always the cause of death for dynasties. Sometimes, the best teams constructed on youth and productivity fall under the weight of money. And as the Tigers prepare to make a run at a fourth consecutive American League Central title, the tough decisions are looming.
As generous as owner Mike Ilitch has been toward fielding a winner, eager to add a World Series trophy to his Stanley Cup success with the Red Wings, there's a limit. It doesn't have to be an owner saying enough. It can be the salary structure put in place by Major League Baseball for big-market, big-spending teams, penalizing teams with a luxury tax. Or it can be the pure capitalism of the free market, allowing accomplished young players to become free agents and choose their destination.
Whatever the route, it's coming for Detroit. And between interviews for a new manager, team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski has some decisions to make, either to make the best run he can with the team he has now or make moves to keep the window of contention open as long as he can.
The Tigers' payroll topped $148 million in the 2013 season, including $64 million to the trio of Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Prince Fielder. They'll combine for $66 million next season with incremental raises for Cabrera and Fielder. Add in a near-doubling of Anibal Sanchez's salary to $15 million, and four players will account for $81 million.
Between Sanchez's raise and arbitration for more than a half-dozen players without long-term deals, the team payroll is headed up, regardless. The first question will be how far. The second question is how many more players they can fit into their payroll picture long term.
It's not the first time the Tigers have faced this. Four years ago, after losing Game 163 in Minnesota, they retooled the roster. Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson were traded, Granderson with four years left on a six-year contract. Placido Polanco, Fernando Rodney, Brandon Lyon and Marcus Thames left as free agents. Polanco didn't even get an offer of arbitration to draw a compensatory Draft pick.
Trading Granderson and Jackson provided two key parts for the current version of the contending Tigers: AL Cy Young Award contender Max Scherzer and center fielder Austin Jackson. The free-agency departures, plus the expiration of Gary Sheffield's contract, freed up payroll to sign Verlander long term and eventually add a top closer in Jose Valverde.
Now, Scherzer is a year away from free agency, leaving the Tigers with perhaps their toughest decision since that 2009 offseason. Jackson has a couple of years to go, but he's part of a half-dozen players climbing the arbitration scale, including Alex Avila, Rick Porcello and Doug Fister.
None of this means the Tigers are going to retool dramatically this winter, but it means they're going to have to make some long-term decisions.
Scherzer and agent Scott Boras will sit down and figure out the right-hander's plans heading into his contract year. The Tigers are expected to approach Boras about a long-term contract. The tendency, though not always the rule, with pitchers who are Boras clients is to wait for free agency before signing a long-term deal. In Scherzer's case, he only has to wait until next winter.
Between the short supply of pitching on the open market and the high demand of teams seeking an ace, Scherzer could be the top free agent on the market next winter, whether or not he duplicates his 2013 numbers.
There are more decisions where that came from, starting with a contract extension for Cabrera before he hits free agency after the 2015 season.
Free agents: RHP Joaquin Benoit, RHP Jeremy Bonderman, RHP Octavio Dotel, 2B Omar Infante, C Brayan Pena, SS/LF Jhonny Peralta, IF Ramon Santiago
Arbitration-eligible: RHP Al Alburquerque (first year), C Avila (second year), OF Jackson (second year), RHP Fister (second year), OF/IF Don Kelly (second year), RHP Porcello (third year), RHP Scherzer (third year).
Rotation: Verlander and Sanchez aren't going anywhere. Their long-term deals signed in the past year erase any question about job security that wasn't already taken care of by their performance. The other spots are where things get tricky.
That includes Scherzer, whose 21-3 season and 2.90 ERA makes him potentially the top free agent at any position on next winter's market. But he's far from the only question.
Both Porcello and Fister are two years away from free agency. For most pitchers, that's the time when teams consider approaching them with long-term deals. It's enough time to evaluate a pitcher and his long-term prognosis, but far enough away from the market that security still appeals to him. Either one could have value on the trade market, too.
If the Tigers trade Scherzer, they might be compelled to explore a long-term deal with Porcello or Fister to avoid a similar scenario next winter. Both require some projection, but Porcello will be just 25 years old next spring coming off arguably the best season of his career in terms of Wins Above Replacement and Fielding Independent Pitching. Fister's ERA has gone up each year since his trade from Seattle, but he's a reliable, consistent pitcher when he's healthy.
If the Tigers trade a starter, Drew Smyly is waiting to swoop in, having nearly beat out Porcello for a fifth-starter spot last Spring Training.
Bullpen: Bruce Rondon has the potential of a shutdown closer, even if he serves an apprenticeship as a setup man for a while. Jose Veras has an option year on his contract that the Tigers will probably pick up. Everything else in the 'pen is in flux.
Benoit is a free agent after taking over at closer for the second half of the season. Phil Coke and Alburquerque are arbitration-eligible following seasons that landed both of them with Triple-A Toledo for a spell. Smyly is a starter-in-waiting. Bonderman is a free agent who was left off the postseason roster. Everybody else is either a project or a question mark.
The good news for Dombrowski is that the uncertainty gives him a chance to tinker with a bullpen that had trouble carrying leads from Detroit's starters to Benoit at closer. The bad news for Dombrowski is that he doesn't have many relievers coming up through the farm system to fill the gaps. Luke Putkonen handled some late-inning situations admirably, but Jose Ortega was inconsistent and Luis Marte was lost for the year to shoulder surgery. Lefty Casey Crosby remains a starter, but after a frustrating, injury-shortened season at Toledo and no chance of cracking Detroit's rotation soon, now might be the time for a Smyly-like shift.
The Tigers will have to turn to free agency or trades to fill some holes, certainly at closer, possibly for another lefty. The question is how much they can do with bigger commitments in the rotation and lineup. Benoit made no secret at season's end that he wants to be back, to the point that he used "we" in talking about the Tigers for next season.
Catcher: Avila's role looked like it could be in question midway through the season. Then he hit .303 with an .876 OPS after the All-Star break. Add in his work with the starting pitchers and some defensive improvements down the stretch, and Avila is set as the starter for next year. The lingering question is whether Pena returns to back him up. He certainly wants to, and he said at the end of the ALCS that he wants to lose 25 pounds to improve his agility. Bryan Holaday is believed to be ready for the big leagues, defensively -- at least in a backup role -- and former top pick James McCann is rising through the farm system.
First base: Fielder isn't going anywhere, not with seven years left on his contract. Yet no matter what you make of a mundane postseason with one extra-base hit and no RBIs, he heads into 2014 with something to prove. His .819 OPS in the regular season was the lowest of any of his eight full seasons in the big leagues, and his .279 average was a 34-point drop from 2012. He still drove in 106 runs, but that's partly because he stepped to the plate with 536 runners on base, 111 more than the average hitter and 80 more than his total the previous year.
Second base: The last time the Tigers parted ways with a standout second baseman in hopes of a prospect taking the job, they ended up with a revolving door for three years. With that in mind, Dombrowski has to figure out how far he's willing to go to keep Infante, who quietly produced one of the best all-around seasons by an AL second baseman this year. Infante says he'd like to be back, but he has a new agent -- Gene Mato did wonders for Sanchez's contract last year -- and he's expected to draw a good amount of interest. Hernan Perez is believed to ready for the big leagues, defensively, and has the speed to add a different dimension to the offense if he can hit consistently.
Shortstop: One of the interesting facets of the Tigers in 2014 will be how much of a difference Jose Iglesias can make with his defense at shortstop over a full season. His offensive game, and its development, could be interesting, too, as the Tigers try to improve his contact rate and utilize his underrated speed. But for the first time since 2009, Adam Everett's only full season in Detroit, the club can go into a season talking about its shortstop position and saying it's all about defense.
Third base: Cabrera is expected to require surgery to repair a torn groin, but he's also expected to make a full recovery before Spring Training. Now, consider that Cabrera hit .365 with 30 home runs and 95 RBIs last season before the All-Star break (and before the injuries took their toll), and think about what a full healthy season could mean. He'll turn 31 in April, and durability will become more and more important as he ages, but his quick bat and pitch recognition show no signs of getting old. The biggest question with Cabrera is how much it'll take to keep him in a Tigers uniform beyond 2015.
Left field: The Tigers didn't believe Nick Castellanos was ready for regular time in the big leagues as a September callup, but they could really use him to be ready for the Majors this coming spring. As the payroll increases, they need to get more production out of younger players, and Castellanos' sweet hitting stroke is their best shot at that. Unless plans change, he'll get a shot to win the starting job in Spring Training.
Center field: Maybe it's a sign that on Jackson's baseball-reference page, the list of most similar hitters through age 26 is topped by Lou Brock, whose career began to take off at that age toward an eventual spot in the Hall of Fame. There's a lot of potential in Jackson, who through four seasons has alternated borderline All-Star seasons with backward steps. That sequence would suggest Jackson's due for another breakout season in 2014. So does the fact that he turns 27 years old in February and should be healthy again. He was moved out of the leadoff spot during the ALCS, but unless the Tigers find an alternative on the open market, he'll be back at the top. He's a free agent after 2015, which makes this the time to consider a long-term deal.
Right field: Torii Hunter turns 39 midway through next season, but he now has back-to-back seasons batting at least 25 points above his career .279 batting average. His 20-homer power is behind him, but his new style of offense is a better fit for the two spot in the batting order, hitting in front of Cabrera. Hunter will be in the final season of the two-year contract he signed last fall.
Designated hitter: There will be no injury rehab this winter for Victor Martinez, who wasn't cleared for full workouts on his surgically repaired knee until just before Spring Training this year. He also won't have the transition of getting used to Major League pitching. Instead of a new beginning, Martinez will be heading into a contract year, the final season of his four-year deal. Only David Ortiz posted better numbers among designated hitters in 2013.