I don't write about the Tigers day-to-day activities much anymore for a few reasons. First, I don't have as much time as I used to with more demands in my real day-time job. Then, there are plenty of other blogs such as Bless You Boys, Detroit Tigers Weblog, Motor City Bengals and Walk off Woodward which already cover the Tigers news. I generally feel there is no need to repeat the news unless I feel they missed an important analytical point. I prefer to focus on analysis and on teaching of sabermetrics because I feel like that is where I can make a more original contribution.
Today though, I am going to chime in with some off-season speculation. First and foremost, the Tigers need lots of bullpen help. For three straight post-seasons, they have been over matched in the bullpen - there was the deep Rangers pen of 2011, the Jose Valverde meltdown of 2012 and the grand slams of 2013. Much of what happens in the playoffs is just a matter of a team getting hot at the right time which I think is largely luck. Still, there is a sense that their bullpen has held them back and there likely be a lot of pressure to rectify it.
Like most general managers, Dave Dombrowski does not like to spend a lot on building a bullpen, because reliever performance is too volatile making any money spent a fairly big risk, even moreso than at other positions. However, the Tigers were probably already in need of an extra reliever before the off-season and now they have lost two more to free agency - closer Joaquin Benoit and veteran Jose Veras.
This leaves the Bengals with lefty Drew Smyly (who may be headed for the starting rotation), righties Al Alburquerque and young fire baller Bruce Rondon (who was still battling an elbow injury at seasons end) as the most trusted remaining relievers. That's a lot of uncertainty, so I'm expecting them to add two or maybe three proven relievers this winter.
Dombrowski has already stated that they will make closer a top priority and there are several to be found in the free agent market this year. The best are Grant Balfour and Joe Natan and I'm going to guess that the Tigers sign one of them fairly quickly. Also available are Benoit (although I get the sense the Tigers see him more as a set up man), Chris Perez, Fernando Rodney and Brian Wilson.
I also expect the Tigers to acquire a left-hander and a right-hander in addition to the closer. These will likely be less expensive additions and may be acquired via trade or waivers rather than free agency. However, there are some good possibilities if they go the free agent route including lefties Scott Downs, J.P. Howell, Boone Logan, Javier Lopez and Oliver Perez. They were rumored to be interested in Lopez at the trading deadline, so keep an eye on that situation.
Right-handed free agent relievers include Matt Belise, Jesse Crain, Latroy Hawkins, Edward Mujica, Francisco Rodriguez and Joe Smith. My pick there is Smith with whom the Tigers have become very familiar over his last five years with the Indians.
Another matter of business for the Tigers includes re-signing Omar Infante or finding an alternative second baseman. The Tigers like rookie Hernan Perez for his defense, but that would leave them potentially with two black holes up the middle. If they can't resign Infante (and he's probably going to be really expensive in a thin second base market), then they could opt for Mark Ellis or Kelly Johnson. Ellis is more of a defensive specialist himself, but will likely out hit Perez. Ellis seems more a fit than Johnson for the Tigers who seem to prefer contact men over low average, high walk hitters.
If the Tigers can't find enough offense at second base, they may look for a more reliable left fielder than Andy Dirks or unproven rookie Nick Castellanos. The best available outfielders are Shin-Soo Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury. Others include Carlos Beltran, Nelson Cruz and Curtis Granderson. Any of these options will be costly and it's not known how much money the Tigers can spend with so many big contracts already in place or coming up. You never know with championship-hungry owner Mike Ilitch, but they might have to roll the dice on Castellanos being ready or find someone cheaper in a trade.
If the Tigers do make a major trade to obtain a second baseman or left fielder or both, it will probably involve a starting pitcher. They are deep in starters and Smyly could be moved to the rotation if a hole opens up. There has been talk of a Scherzer trade, but the Tigers will be all in to win a championship in 2014, so I can't see them trading one of the top pitchers in the league unless they get multiple major leaguers or major league ready pieces in return. It's hard to envision that happening since Scherzer has just one more year remaining on his contract. Big trades are where Dombrowski excels the most though, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that he could swing something.
I would say it's more likely the Tigers move Rick Porcello or possibility Doug Fister in an effort to get pieces they can't obtain via free agency. Each has two years left on their contract, so it would seem like a reasonable time to deal them. Porcello gets a lot of criticism from Tigers fans, but I think he has more trade value than some think. He's an inning-eating ground-ball pitcher, who never misses a start and his strikeout rate improved significantly last year. And he's still just 25 years old. He'll be in high demand if they put him out there. Fister would have even more value.
One thing the Tigers almost certainly won't be able to do is trade first baseman Prince Fielder. He'll likely bounce back some next year, but his contract is pretty much un-tradeable and there is a good chance his big body will prevent him from having a long peak. Like it or not, I think they are stuck with him for a while. So, let's hope he gets back to being a .900 OPS guy or close to it next year.
While Fielder is likely staying, there are plenty of other ways this could turn unto a busy winter for the Tigers. Expect the fun to begin shortly.