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Tigers face big free-agency decisions

Tigers face big free-agency decisions

The Tigers have spent the past couple offseasons treading carefully in free agency, preferring to do most of their dealings in trades. This year, they're going to be intricately involved in the open market, whether they want to or not.

Now that the postseason finished up without the Tigers following their late-season fall, the process of rebounding from that disappointment begins with determining which of their free agents they want to bring back. And with a half-dozen key members of this year's team eligible for free agency, they have some big decisions to make.

The list includes this year's starting double-play duo of second baseman Placido Polanco and shortstop Adam Everett, their eighth- and ninth-inning relievers in Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney, and their late-season trade acquisitions with Jarrod Washburn and Aubrey Huff.

All but Lyon filed for free agency Thursday, the first day players could file, following the conclusion of the World Series. Teams have exclusive negotiating rights with their own free agents for 15 days starting Thursday before players who filed can receive contract offers from any team starting Nov. 20.

Most of them probably won't be back. The Tigers have the ability to replace some, and they don't have the financial resources to bring back others they might like to keep. Their work this winter will involve trying to hold onto some key guys while replacing the rest.

"We are not going to be able to keep all of our players this wintertime," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski admitted recently. "I don't think that that's going to be able to take place."

For one more offseason, it's the challenge facing a team with a high-market payroll in a region whose economic troubles aren't going away anytime soon. They'll have many more players on the market next winter, but this offseason's dealings will say a lot about what they can do in 2010.

"We have a complicated formula this year," Dombrowski said, "because we have a lot of dollars spent. We have some young players that we think are ready to step up, come in and help us. We're going to have to figure all those things out."

Dombrowski has spent the last couple days in meetings with front-office assistants, scouts and manager Jim Leyland going over the free-agent and potential trade markets. It's the second half of the Tigers' end-of-season meetings, following up on gatherings last month in Lakeland to review Detroit's farm system.

Of this year's free agents, the Tigers seemingly have the best chance to bring back Everett, whose one-year deal last winter marked the Tigers' lone Major League free-agent signing. He responded by playing a big role in Detroit's improved infield defense. His .238 average and 44 RBIs shrouded some respectable situational hitting, from a .270 average with runners in scoring position to an 8-for-22 performance with a runner on third base and two outs.

Though the Tigers and Everett haven't had discussions on a new deal, interest in a return is believed to be mutual, according to a source. That said, shortstop is one area where the Tigers could possibly look for an offensive upgrade. If the Brewers decide to trade displaced shortstop J.J. Hardy, the Tigers could take a look, though they don't have quite the pitching depth to deal Milwaukee a needed front-line starter.

Should Everett return at short, he'll likely have a new double-play partner after Polanco manned second base in Detroit for the past 4 1/2 seasons. The four-year, $18.4 million contract Polanco signed near the end of 2005 paid huge dividends for both Polanco and the Tigers, but he's expected to draw enough interest from other teams this winter to earn more money and a longer contract than Detroit is willing to match. The 34-year-old set a career high with 72 RBIs this year while batting .285 with 10 home runs and 31 doubles.

Polanco didn't gauge his chances of returning, but at season's end, he sounded like someone ready to explore his options while not eliminating Detroit. He said he hopes to have a choice between multiple teams, and suggested he'd like to be able to continue Spring Training in Florida, close to his home in Miami.

Dombrowski has all but anointed prospect Scott Sizemore, Detroit's Minor League Player of the Year, as the successor at second should they not re-sign Polanco. Sizemore's fractured tibia suffered during Arizona Fall League play a couple weeks ago has not changed that view. Ramon Santiago, who shared time at shortstop with Everett, could serve as a fallback option.

Detroit's bullpen situation isn't nearly so clear. Rodney's breakout year as a closer, with 37 saves in 38 chances, couldn't have been timed better if he'd tried. Nobody on the free-agent list had more saves this season. After elbow problems limited him in four of his previous five seasons, he showed the durability to answer questions about his long-term health.

Whether all that earns him a long-term deal remains to be seen, given the unpredictability of the relief market. It most likely won't come from Detroit, which has only rarely signed relievers to multi-year deals since Dombrowski took over in 2002. Rodney was one, but that was when he was eligible for arbitration.

For most teams, the plan of succession after losing a closer would leave the setup man as the logical man to follow. In the Tigers' case, however, their best setup man was Lyon, also a free agent after allowing just 56 hits over a career-high 78 2/3 innings with a career-best 57 strikeouts.

Lyon signed a one-year deal with the Tigers as a free agent last winter in part for the opportunity to close, an opportunity he didn't have once Rodney beat him out for the job in Spring Training. He could get that again if he re-signs, but that's far from a given.

Agent Barry Meister said he has yet to talk with the Tigers about a new contract, but that they didn't expect that to pick up until free agency formally began, and until the Tigers figured out how to proceed with their bullpen.

Meister said his client is open to returning to Detroit, whether or not it includes the closer's job.

"If there's an opportunity to close, I think he still feels like he can close," Meister said Wednesday. "But he enjoyed the job that he did with the Tigers. I think it's just kind of a question of putting all these variables together."

The Tigers aren't expected to bring back Washburn or Huff, both of whom struggled down the stretch. Washburn, who was shut down for the final couple weeks after his troublesome left knee made it more difficult for him to pitch effectively, told the Detroit Free Press that he hasn't heard from the Tigers except for updates on his knee.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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