DETROIT -- When it comes to free agency, the Tigers are still seen as the mystery team with ample spending money. That image might not change, as long as Mike Ilitch is looking for a World Series trophy.
In reality, this might be a year when the Tigers have to watch what they do on the free-agent market. They've got their own guys to worry about -- some of them free agents this winter, others free agents fairly soon.
The regular season hadn't even ended when the Tigers popped up in rumors for top guys hitting the market. In September, they were the team that could supposedly offer Robinson Cano something close to the $300 million contract he was rumored to be seeking. In October, they were the club that was potentially a logical fit for Jacoby Ellsbury.
The way things are shaping up, that might be more of a luxury. The names they're worried about at the moment are Joaquin Benoit and Omar Infante. Neither will be the top free agent at their positions on the market, but both could be key to deciding whether the Tigers can keep their streak of division titles and postseason runs rolling.
Detroit has a closer-in-waiting in Bruce Rondon, whose second-half work (19 2/3 innings, 16 hits, five runs, seven walks, 22 strikeouts) in a setup role supporting Benoit suggests he's close to making the jump. However, Detroit does not have a closer to hold the job until he's ready. Jose Veras closed in Houston before his late-July trade, but he profiles more as a setup reliever. Phil Coke closed in the 2012 American League Championship Series and shared save chances at the start of 2013, but he has his own pitching to settle.
Benoit is open to returning, but is probably going to check the market. In the past, he has said he'd be interested in coming back -- even if he isn't guaranteed the full-time closing role. If he moves on, the Tigers are left to look at other potential short-term closers, some of them familiar (Joe Nathan dominated the Tigers for years in Minnesota, while Fernando Rodney closed in Detroit in 2009) and some not (Grant Balfour nearly had a benches-clearing incident as a result of his exchange with Victor Martinez in the AL Division Series).
Infante has been a spark plug at second base the past year and a half, but has the potential to draw significant interest on the market. The Tigers can replace him at second with rising prospect Hernan Perez, but might have more trouble replacing his offense.
"I want to be back. I love this team," Infante said after the ALCS. "This organization has a lot of good players, Miguel [Cabrera], Victor Martinez, Prince [Fielder], 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."
Jhonny Peralta, despite his postseason heroics, is almost certainly out. His value is as an infielder, and the Tigers are set at shortstop and third base. Ramon Santiago, too, likely seems out, given the presence of Perez and Danny Worth in the system.
Once those issues are settled, the Tigers have a gigantic free-agent situation looming for next winter in Max Scherzer, whose dominance of AL hitters the past year and a half have put him in position to be the top name on the market next winter. Detroit officials will engage agent Scott Boras in some exploratory talks, and Boras hasn't ruled out an extension. Still, between Boras' track record of taking pitchers to market and Scherzer's potential earnings, it's hard to envision him signing this offseason.
With no deal, the Tigers would be left to decide whether to keep him for 2014 and take a compensatory draft pick or shop him on the trade market for prospects and/or young players that fit their needs. The latter would raise the question about how much one season of Scherzer is worth to another club.
Here's a more complete look at the free-agent issues facing the Tigers this offseason:
Free agents: RHP Benoit, RHP Jeremy Bonderman, RHP Octavio Dotel, 2B Infante, C Brayan Pena, SS/LF Peralta, IF Santiago
Eligible for arbitration: RHP Al Alburquerque (first year), C Alex Avila (second year), LHP Coke (third year), OF Austin Jackson (second year), RHP Doug Fister (second year), OF/IF Don Kelly (second year), RHP Rick Porcello (third year), RHP Scherzer (third year), OF Andy Dirks
Non-tender candidates: Kelly, Coke
Club options: RHP Veras ($3.25 million or $150,000 buyout)
Player options: None
Areas of need
Closer: The Tigers are expected to make a push to bring back Benoit, who would hold down the job until Rondon takes over. The good news with Benoit is that he's versatile enough to shift back to a setup role once Rondon is ready. The bad news for Detroit is that the 36-year-old Benoit could be in demand among teams looking for short-term relief. That said, Benoit was caught using the term "we" when talking about the Tigers for next season just after '13 ended in Boston.
Lefty relief: If the Tigers had a lefty that former manager Jim Leyland trusted against David Ortiz at season's end, Detroit probably would have been playing in the World Series instead of the Red Sox. Either the Tigers have to regain that trust in Coke or Drew Smyly, or they have to find someone they believe in to tackle the job. Detroit tried for Javier Lopez at the Trade Deadline, but could never get the Giants to budge. He'll be on the open market at age 36, as will Seattle's Oliver Perez at age 32 and Eric O'Flaherty at age 29. Detroit has never spent big on a lefty reliever, but they might have to take a look.
Second base: The Tigers would like Infante back, and he'd like to be back and stay in his comfort zone. But Infante is going to check the market, and he's shaping up to be the best free-agent second baseman not named Cano. His new agent, Gene Mato, did a skilled job of involving several teams in the Anibal Sanchez bidding last winter, before Detroit swooped in with a five-year deal. The Tigers feel like Perez is ready for the Majors defensively and not that far off at the plate. If the bidding for Infante gets crazy, the Tigers are expected to go in-house with Perez.
Speed: Time will tell just how differently the Tigers will work the basepaths under a new manager. Their roster doesn't support a big change, but simply having a speed option off the bench could make a difference. They had it with Quintin Berry in 2012, then lacked it for most of 2013. If Perez becomes the utility infielder, he can do the job. A speedy extra outfielder, however, wouldn't hurt.
Backup catcher: Pena made no secret at season's end about his desire to return and his plan to lose 25 pounds this offseason to prove he's serious about his work behind the plate, but the Tigers have decided to give Bryan Holaday and prospect James McCann the opportunity to back up Avila.
The Tigers ended up fifth in baseball with a payroll around $150 million, and that number is headed up -- even if they let their free agents go and do nothing major to reshape the roster. Ilitch has been generous in giving his front office room to maneuver, and the additional revenue from Major League Baseball's new national television contracts should provide a big help. Still, there's only so far the Tigers can go before they hamstring team finances for the years ahead.