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Tigers remain team built to contend

Tigers remain team built to contend

The Tigers' moves this offseason, and their lack of other moves, leave Detroit with several questions heading into 2010 -- some about the roster, others about core players, still others about the club in general. Here are 10 of them, and some answers, as best can be drawn so far:

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1. Are the Tigers contending, rebuilding, selling or none of the above?

It's hard to fit them into any one category right now. Their payroll issues and the impact of Michigan's economy have drawn plenty of attention even before their big trade of Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson, but they're still projected to have a payroll of more than $100 million in 2010. They could've made a major attempt to trade Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera if they truly wanted to slash payroll, but that hasn't happened. They're clearly a younger team with Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth, but at their heart, they still have a veteran core that includes Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen and Brandon Inge. Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski admitted the trade clearly aims to make the Tigers a stronger team for 2011 and beyond, but said that they're aiming to contend in '10.

The reality is that the Tigers aren't the same team that was built two years ago to contend now. But in the American League Central, they remain a team built to contend, and they could still end up the team to beat if they can get bounceback seasons from Ordonez and Guillen to bolster the offense. Detroit could make more moves before Spring Training that could reshape the roster further, so this might yet be a work in progress.

2. Is Rick Porcello ready to step into a front-line starting role?

I've talked with a few club officials this offseason about Porcello and the next step in his development, and the short answer is that he's kind of a front-line starter now. The quality of his pitches and his ability to adjust to hitters in midseason suggest that he's way ahead of projections for a 21-year-old starting pitcher. But that doesn't mean the Tigers are going to set him loose and work him like a veteran hurler.

Detroit hadn't set any limits for Porcello as of yet, but the club is expected to set some by Spring Training. Porcello is expected to be able to work deeper into games, something manager Jim Leyland hinted at when he said at the Winter Meetings that the hurler will hopefully keep the Tigers in the game in the seventh inning. They could expand his pitch selection to work on both his slider and his curveball, though they'll have to work together on deciding when it's right to use which one as a secondary pitch. And they'll probably give him a little more leeway to work through some struggles and find ways to make adjustments on the mound. But to expect him to go beyond 100 pitches regularly might be a bit much.

As for where he slots in the rotation, the Tigers will say that they don't rank pitchers one through five. But with Scherzer now a new Detroit hurler with 37 career Major League starts, and two other rotation spots unclear, it's obvious Porcello holds a front-line starting role. Chances are, as Porcello and Verlander go, the Tigers will follow.

3. Who fills out the rotation after Verlander, Porcello and Scherzer?

The Tigers want Jeremy Bonderman to fill out one of those spots, and they believe he's on track to do that. He's had a regular, healthy offseason workout plan for the first time in at least three years. If you count the winter after the 2006 season as abnormal because of the extra innings in October and the restrictions against offseason throwing, then Bonderman hasn't worked out like this since going into 2005. That doesn't mean he's a sure thing for 2010, but he's no longer being treated as an injured pitcher.

What the Tigers do with the other opening is going to be very interesting. They aren't expected to add anyone off the open market, and their in-house options include plenty of questions. Can Armando Galarraga recapture the form that made him Detroit's best starter in 2008? Can a now-healthy Nate Robertson regain his old form? Can Eddie Bonine really fill a rotation spot? Can Coke, who had mixed results as a starter in the Yankees farm system, take his relief success from New York and translate it into a rotation role? None of those questions have answers quite yet.

4. Can the Tigers count on oft-injured Joel Zumaya or youngster Ryan Perry to take over their closer's role? If not, what can they do between now and Spring Training?

Dombrowski says Detroit isn't afraid to use either of them at closer. Still, that doesn't mean the club is counting on it.

Zumaya is basically done with his injury rehab after surgery last summer to remove a bone shard from the stress fracture in his throwing shoulder. If he comes back at full strength, he has the stuff to be a closer, and he has the experience of late-inning work behind him, even though he hasn't closed regularly. The one major factor against him is the risk that he'll be injured again, leaving the Tigers scrambling to replace him.

Dombrowski, meanwhile, cites some in the organization who believe Perry could close right now at age 22 with only one full professional season under his belt. That said, he didn't pitch in many setup situations this past season, let alone saves. His late-inning appearances mainly amounted to coming in with close deficits and keeping the Tigers in position to come back.

Between Dombrowski's history against big contracts for relievers and the team's bullpen depth, the Tigers almost surely won't be spending big for a top closer, and it'll take a lot for them to offer a multiyear contract. But with more late-inning relievers on the market than clubs looking for one, I'd be very surprised if the Tigers didn't sign or trade for a veteran option on a short-term contract to at least compete with Zumaya and/or Perry for the job in Spring Training.

5. How do the Tigers replace Granderson?

Dombrowski and others believe Jackson, the prospect they received from the Yankees in the Granderson trade, is ready to play center field in the big leagues right now, even in Comerica Park. His speed and defense won them over at Triple-A last season. Even if he doesn't play every day, the Tigers have enough options in Clete Thomas and Casper Wells that they could conceivably set up a platoon situation if need be.

Finding a leadoff hitter is another matter, and it's one without any obvious answer. Jackson has demonstrated doubles and triples potential with speed and baserunning skills, but he didn't bat leadoff at Triple-A. In fact, he hasn't hit leadoff regularly in a few years. Rookie Scott Sizemore fits more as a second hitter or lower in the order than he would at leadoff. Ryan Raburn batted leadoff against lefties last year and could do the same in 2010, but he isn't on track to play every day. The Tigers have reported interest in former White Sox speedster Scott Podsednik, but he's reportedly looking for a multiyear contract.

6. Will Detroit really rely on Sizemore to replace Placido Polanco at second?

Yes, as long as he's ready. The Tigers see him as the second baseman of the future, with offensive potential and room to improve defensively. Given the timing with Polanco gone as a free agent, the future for Sizemore is now.

Even with the market for free-agent second basemen looking really slow, these are the kinds of openings that the Tigers are going to look to fill from within when they can. They haven't done a lot of that with position players over the past few years, but they need to do it if they're going to be successful long-term.

7. Where does Guillen fit into the Tigers' picture?

Good question, but suffice to say, he fits. The Tigers have explored trade options for Guillen, but with two years at $13 million each left on his contract, his injury history, his trade veto power and his well-expressed desire for an infield role again, the odds are against it.

Much as Guillen would like a return to the infield, his fit with the Tigers is in left field and designated hitter. Neither Dombrowski nor Leyland want a full-time DH if they can help it, so Guillen is going to have to play the field at least part-time. Leyland said during the Winter Meetings that they haven't seen what Guillen can do in left when he's healthy, so they're at least open about it.

Offensively, he's a much better fit, certainly when he's healthy. As it stands now, unless the Tigers add another hitter or Thomas or Jeff Larish get a bigger role, the switch-hitting Guillen could be the only left-handed bat in Detroit's lineup on some days, depending on what happens with young catcher Alex Avila. When Guillen's moving around well, he's one of the smartest baserunners the Tigers have, and one of their few legitimate threats to take an extra base at any point.

8. How much can the Tigers expect out of Inge next season after knee surgery?

That's basically a two-part question: Can the Tigers expect Inge to be ready for the start of next season, and if he's healthy, how much can he produce? To answer the first part, Detroit expects Inge to be ready for Opening Day, and his timetable provides enough leeway that he could go a little slow or have a minor setback or two and still be ready. If they weren't confident about the timetable, team officials have said, they most likely would've had him undergo surgery right after the season, rather than wait until the start of November.

As for the second part, how much better will he be, it's more complex than looking at his first- and second-half splits. His first-half numbers were his best of his career because he made adjustments in his approach that pitchers had yet to counter. The second half saw Inge fall into bad habits at the plate to compensate for his knee, but it also saw pitchers adjust how they pitched to him. Inge is going to have to get comfortable again with his mechanics to the point where they're second nature, but he's also going to have to deal with how pitchers attack him.

Defensively, though, he's a strong enough athlete even at age 32 that he should be back to normal. Considering how bad his knees were, he really didn't lose as much as one might've expected rangewise; it was more about how much he could get on his throws.

9. Will Cabrera ever be able to overcome his late-season controversy?

I think he can. The Tigers seemingly do as well, or they would've made more of an effort to trade his contract with less concern about the return package. Cabrera's remarks -- and just as important, the look on his face -- after the tiebreaking game seemed to reveal a genuine grasp of what happened. The Tigers aren't talking publicly about what he's doing this offseason, but every indication coming out of Detroit and Venezuela is that he's taking steps.

As much as last October is going to go down in history, Detroit fans have shown a decent capacity to forgive. And Cabrera, even with his name in headlines and the spotlight on him, still produced nearly half of Detroit's offense in the tiebreaker.

10. Are the Tigers becoming a smaller-market team because of the economy?

No, I don't see them that way. Again, the payroll argues against it. More than that, though, they still have a bigger attendance base than most small-market clubs. While attendance fell from 2008 to '09 and could do so again, the Tigers don't have the same troubles drawing fans in Detroit that clubs do in other Midwestern cities. Even with Michigan's economic woes, population shift and high unemployment, it's a better baseball town than most.

That said, this was never a market to support a top-five payroll year in and year out. It's a team with an owner who has been willing to spend to win, but didn't get a postseason berth from two years of high payrolls. That wasn't going to last forever.

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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