DETROIT -- For most teams, the cold winter weeks between the holiday season and Spring Training are the time to wrap up loose ends and find a bargain or two. For the Tigers, though, January has been more like holiday shopping.
As the calendar flips to 2014 and free agency offers more remnants and fewer stars than in past years, however, the Tigers appear more likely to shuffle smaller pieces and make minor tweaks. If there's a big deal left in Detroit this winter, it's more likely to keep a player, not add one.
The Tigers fueled their rebirth a decade ago on the strength of post-holiday signings. They traded for Carlos Guillen just after the holidays in 2004 when the Mariners' signing of Rich Aurilia made him expendable. Their courtship with Ivan Rodriguez, the last free agent left on that year's market, was just picking up.
Rodriguez's deal just before Spring Training not only changed the direction of the franchise, it set a trend. Detroit followed the same formula a year later by grabbing Magglio Ordonez after losing out on several other free agents earlier that offseason. In 2010, the supposedly retooling Tigers changed course after Christmas, filled their closer need with Jose Valverde in mid-January and added a veteran hitter in Johnny Damon six weeks later. Two years ago, owner Mike Ilitch responded to news of Victor Martinez's devastating knee injury by authorizing a nine-year megadeal for free agent Prince Fielder that stunned baseball on the tail end of the Hot Stove season once again.
For the Tigers' well deserved reputation as a big market club, few teams have worked the balance of supply and demand on the market over the years better, the Damon and Fielder deals notwithstanding. This isn't necessarily the kind of market to leverage that way, not with so many top free agents already signed. It is, however, a market with useful pieces still available, notably on the bullpen end with Fernando Rodney and Grant Balfour still looking for closing jobs.
Whether the Tigers would add another reliever is another question. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski indicated a couple of weeks ago that Joba Chamberlain filled their remaining bullpen need, providing support for hard-throwing sophomore setup man Bruce Rondon. However, Dombrowski never openly expressed a pursuit of a closer four winters ago until Valverde signed in mid-January. The number of teams potentially seeking relief help, however, suggests this market won't slant quite so strongly toward Detroit.
For the Tigers, a better template for this late offseason might be the last one. Their lone significant free-agent signing last January was a one-year deal with utilityman Don Kelly, who took a Minor League contract to return to Detroit, earned a spot on the 25-man roster and stayed there all year. Their most important contract talks, however, laid the foundation for the contract extension Justin Verlander signed at the end of Spring Training.
Detroit has a slew of players within two years of free agency, normally the time frame when teams consider long-term extensions. It's generally the balancing point when teams can offer players long-term security and players are far enough away from the open market to seriously consider an offer. Their most pressing situations, Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera, are in differing spots.
The timetable is different on Scherzer, who could file for free agency this fall. Verlander's contract situation dominated discussions last winter, and Verlander's extension seemingly sealed Scherzer's fate. Then Scherzer turned in a Cy Young Award-winning season that topped Verlander's numbers.
Scherzer's season presents an intriguing contract situation immediately, long-term deal or no. The 29-year-old right-hander is eligible for arbitration one more time, which puts him in line for a substantial raise from the $6.725 million deal agent Scott Boras negotiated to avoid arbitration last winter.
Eligible players can file for arbitration on Jan. 14, with teams and players exchanging salary offers three days later. If the two sides can't agree on a deal, a hearing before an arbitrator would take place in February. Scherzer and the Tigers didn't come to an agreement last year until early February, just ahead of a hearing. No Tigers player has gone to an arbitration ruling since Dave Dombrowski took over as general manager in 2002, but Scherzer is among those who have come the closest.
The Tigers' history under Dombrowski suggests they'll try to avoid arbitration before delving too deeply into long-term talks, though in some cases over the years the two have gone in hand-in-hand. A one-year extension could then be factored into a longer-term deal if the two sides can reach one.
The timeline is somewhat less urgent on Cabrera, who has two years left on the eight-year, $152 million contract he reached during Spring Training in 2008. Cabrera's importance to the Tigers, however, makes his situation vital, as his back-to-back MVP Awards reflect.
When Cabrera signed his current contract, he was two years away from free agency. But then, the Tigers wouldn't have traded six prospects for Cabrera if they weren't confident about signing him long term a few months later.
Unlike Scherzer and others, Cabrera doesn't have to worry about arbitration. His base salary is set at $22 million this season and next, not including awards incentives. That, however, doesn't make his potential extension any easier, especially after the 10-year, $240 million contract Robinson Cano signed with Seattle last month.