While last week's American League Central tiebreaker will go down as one of the most heartbreaking losses in franchise history, it might also end up being remembered as graduation day for Rick Porcello, whose progression from 20-year-old rookie to potential front-line starter seemingly happened before the eyes of a national television audience.
On the heels of Justin Verlander's career-high 19th victory two days earlier, allowing Detroit to force the tiebreaker and finishing off the most dominant season from a Tigers starter since maybe Jack Morris, Detroit has a 1-2 combination that many in baseball would envy. Add in Edwin Jackson, whose All-Star season featured a dominant first half before he faded down the stretch, and the Tigers' top three starters earn the team instant credibility alongside the White Sox as the toughest rotations in the division.
"I know it wasn't enough," catcher Gerald Laird said Tuesday, "but this organization, we're going in the right direction, especially when you've got a 20-year-old kid who grew up in front of everyone's eyes. With him, Verlander, Jackson, the guys in the bullpen, it's definitely going in the right direction. We'll be back again."
It's around that group that the Tigers will build and change, whether it's major or minor. Four prominent players are eligible for free agency, from the late-inning duo of Fernando Rodney and Brandon Lyon to the double-play combination of Placido Polanco and Adam Everett. Though team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said last week he hadn't yet talked with owner Mike Ilitch about the team's budget for next year, he made it clear the Tigers won't be able to retain them all.
In fact, Dombrowski sees an offseason approach that looks a lot like last winter, when the Tigers made a few smaller, targeted moves that didn't cost a lot of money.
"You have to make wise decisions," Dombrowski said. "When you look at some of the acquisitions that we made [last offseason], they worked out well for us. They might not have been high-profile moves."
Brandon Inge, Carlos Guillen, Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson and Armando Galarraga will be coming back from injuries that hampered them for much of the season. All of them but Galarraga will be entering the final year of their contracts and could be free agents next winter. Galarraga could be eligible for arbitration after next season.
Then there's Magglio Ordonez, whose 2010 season is guaranteed with the $18 million option that triggered down the stretch, but whose potential production is up for discussion after he overcame an anemic first half to put up the American League's hottest final month. Whether the Tigers can expect Ordonez to keep up his late-season tear for next season could play a huge role in how they build their offense.
Ordonez's home run total might be secondary in that. After two seasons of an offense built in theory around middle-of-the-order power, Dombrowski signaled there could be a transition towards a more disciplined, versatile attack.
"There's been an adjustment in the game over the last couple years," Dombrowski said last week. "I don't see quite the home run production that was out there. I don't think you can live or die with just the home run. We will have a thought process in what we're going to do to approach that going into next Spring Training."
Free agents: Adam Everett, SS; Aubrey Huff, DH; Brandon Lyon, RHP; Placido Polanco, 2B; Fernando Rodney, RHP, Jarrod Washburn, LHP.
Eligible for arbitration: Edwin Jackson, RHP; Gerald Laird, C; Zach Miner, RHP; Ramon Santiago, SS; Bobby Seay, LHP; Marcus Thames, OF; Matt Treanor, C; Justin Verlander, RHP; Joel Zumaya, RHP.
Player options: None.
Club options: None.
Non-tender possibilities: Marcus Thames, OF; Matt Treanor, C.
Gerald Laird, .225 BA, 4 HRs, 35 RBIs
Alex Avila, .279 BA, 5 HRs, 36 RBIs
Dusty Ryan, .154 BA, 5 RBIs
Manager Jim Leyland said down the stretch that he'd gladly take Laird and Avila as his catching combination for next year, mixing Laird's run-stifling defense with Avila's offensive potential for a full season. The Tigers believe Laird can be a better hitter if he isn't overused like he arguably was this year once Treanor was lost for the season. They also believe Avila has the chance to be a quality all-around catcher with more training behind the plate, making next year an apprenticeship of sorts for him.
Miguel Cabrera, .324 BA, 34 HRs, 103 RBIs
Ryan Strieby, .303 BA, 19 HRs, 58 RBIs (Double-A)
As much scrutiny as Cabrera encountered over the season's final few days, on and off the field, he isn't going anywhere. The Tigers believe him when he says he'll spend the offseason putting his life in order, and they know they couldn't possibly get any hitter as good as him on the open market. Strieby is arguably Detroit's top hitting prospect, but the Tigers must transition him to the outfield if they're going to find playing time for him.
Scott Sizemore, 308 BA, 17 HRs, 66 RBIs (Double-A/Triple-A)
Unless the Tigers can somehow re-sign Polanco to a short-term deal, they're ready to give a shot to Sizemore, Detroit's representative in last summer's All-Star Futures Game, who boasts some of the same qualities as Polanco. Sizemore won't have the same fielding acumen, but the Tigers see the potential for a spark plug at the plate. If Sizemore can't make the jump, Detroit has Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn as fallback options.
Ramon Santiago, .267 BA, 7 HRs, 35 RBIs
Brent Dlugach, .294 BA, 9 HRs, 59 RBIs (Triple-A)
This is one of a few areas where the Tigers could look to upgrade their offense, though they won't do it at the expense of a defense that strengthened tremendously with Everett and Santiago there last year. It would not be a surprise if the Tigers re-signed Everett, but prospect Cale Iorg's struggles at Double-A Erie last year make his situation more about if he takes over at short someday, not when. That might open the Tigers towards looking for help beyond 2010.
Brandon Inge, .230 BA, 27 HRs, 84 RBIs
Jeff Larish, .216 BA, 4 HRs, 7 RBIs
Inge's season back at the hot corner was much like previous years there, with a glove that can't be replaced and a bat that produces either big hits or strikeouts on many occasions. His first-half performance earned him an All-Star selection, and the Tigers hope that's the player he can be again once his ailing left knee heals this offseason after hampering him for the season's final three months. Larish still has value as a left-handed power bat, but he's a man without a position.
Curtis Granderson, .249 BA, 30 HRs, 71 RBIs
Carlos Guillen, .242 BA, 11 HRs, 41 RBIs
Magglio Ordonez, .310 BA, 9 HRs, 50 RBIs
Ryan Raburn, .291 BA, 16 HRs, 45 RBIs
Wilkin Ramirez, .258 BA, 17 HRs, 51 RBIs (Triple-A)
Clete Thomas, .240 BA, 7 HRs, 39 RBIs
Here's where the Tigers will need a lot more production if they're going to bounce back offensively in 2010, whether it comes from the current group or an addition or two. Dombrowski said Granderson can be a "much better hitter than he was this year," but that he's going to have to hit more to the opposite field and hit left-handers better to do it, not to mention be an effective leadoff hitter. Ordonez and Guillen could end up sharing time at designated hitter and the corner spots, allowing the Tigers to see what they have in Raburn as well as maybe add another corner outfielder.
Marcus Thames, .252 BA, 13 HRs, 36 RBIs
Dombrowski said he doesn't see the Tigers using a full-time DH next year, instead envisioning a rotation in the job that could include Guillen and Ordonez when they're not playing in the outfield. That rules out some potential trade talk this winter, but it also reflects the reality that the Tigers want to strengthen their outfield defense in the corners, something they tried to do this year with Leyland's late-inning substitutions.
Jeremy Bonderman, 0-1, 8.71 ERA
Eddie Bonine, 1-1, 4.46 ERA
Armando Galarraga, 6-10, 5.64 ERA
Edwin Jackson, 13-9, 3.62 ERA
Rick Porcello, 14-9, 3.96 ERA
Nate Robertson, 2-3, 5.44 ERA
Justin Verlander, 19-9, 3.45 ERA
Dontrelle Willis, 1-4, 7.49 ERA
The Tigers will put up their top three starters against any other trio in the American League, though Jackson's second-half struggles created some worries whether he had worn down. The other two rotation slots, however, are questions. Leyland and Dombrowski both said they expect Bonderman to slot into one opening after lingering right shoulder soreness effectively derailed his season. Galarraga and Robertson currently line up in a fight for a spot in '10, as does Bonine. Remember, though, that the Tigers weren't openly talking about needing a starter when they traded for Jackson last winter.
Casey Fien, 0-1, 7.94 ERA
Alfredo Figaro, 2-2, 6.35 ERA
Zach Miner, 7-5, 4.29 ERA
Fu-Te Ni, 0-0, 2.61 ERA
Ryan Perry, 0-1, 3.79 ERA
Bobby Seay, 6-3, 4.25 ERA
Joel Zumaya, 3-3, 4.94 ERA
Barring a financial boom on the free-agent closer market, the Tigers will try to fill their ninth-inning role from the outside with a veteran arm, possibly Lyon or Rodney but not for big money. The rest of the relief corps, on the other hand, could have a pretty young look aside from Seay. The belief is that Perry's ready for a setup role now and potentially closing duties later, but Zumaya's health could make a major difference in how the late innings shake out. With young arms Cody Satterwhite and Robbie Weinhardt maybe a year away, don't look for long-term contracts with this group.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.