So the question is: What would I do if I were the general manager of the Tigers?
Well, I'd have a big smile on my face. While the Tigers went from leading the American League Central at the All-Star break to finishing 13 games out with an 81-81 record, the situation is far from bleak in Detroit.
The Tigers have some very good pieces, a lot of money, and an owner who will allow me to fill in around those pieces with quality players. Mike Ilitch is an owner who isn't obsessed with the bottom line. He is a native of Detroit and has sold enough pizzas over the years that he is willing to spend a lot money to bring the beleaguered Motor City, hit as hard by the nation's economic troubles as any metropolitan area, its first World Series title since 1984.
I would also count my blessings to have Jim Leyland as my manager. While he has taken some heat in Detroit for not taking the Tigers back to the postseason since winning the AL pennant in his first season in 2006, Leyland is still as good of a baseball man as you will find. He may not be the most sabermetrically-savvy skipper and he may refer to Twitter as Twister and Google as Goggle, but he is not oblivious to the numbers and has a feel for dealing with people that is second to none.
The foundation of every good club is starting pitching, and the Tigers have a pair of right-handers with ace-type stuff whose best years seem to be in front of them in Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. That is a good start toward contending in a division that is not the strongest, the Twins' 94-win season this year notwithstanding. Throw in the fact that Rick Porcello also has the raw talent to turn into an ace and you're looking at a rotation that would be tough to beat in any post-season series.
Of course, we're getting way ahead of ourselves in thinking about lining up the starting pitching for the 2011 World Series. However, it is heartening to know that the rest of the rotation can be fashioned from amongst such in-house candidates as left-hander Phil Coke (who can be converted from reliever in spring training) and Andrew Oliver and right-hander Armando Galarraga.
Jose Valverde isn't the ideal closer but he'd be OK to start the season while I'd start having Leyland groom two of the younger relievers, left-hander Daniel Schlereth and right-hander Ryan Perry, to start taking over for the job. That provides a good enough start to building a solid bullpen.
For good measure, though, I'd take a free-agent flier on Aaron Harang at a low cost to compete for the fifth starter's spot and also provide bullpen depth as a long reliever if he does not crack the rotation. Harang was limited to 111
First baseman Miguel Cabrera is as good as any power hitter to build a lineup around. Furthermore, center fielder Austin Jackson is also a building block despite striking out 170 times as a rookie this year. He has the athletic ability and baseball aptitude to get better and scouts believe he will eventually turn into one of the top defensive center fielders in the game.
Beyond Cabrera and Jackson, though, there are a lot of directions a GM can go in building the lineup. Considering I have almost $70 million of contracts coming off the books and an owner who will give me the green light to spend, I'm going to become a one-man economic stimulus package and live large on the free-agent market by targeting three hitters who could make a major difference: Carl Crawford, Adam Dunn, and Victor Martinez.
Everyone seems to automatically assume that Crawford is going to a large-market team and the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels are the three that always get mentioned as the left fielder's likely destination. Yet Crawford has spent his entire career playing for the small-market Rays and admittedly isn't the type who looks to be in the spotlight. Thus, I'd sell him on the idea that Detroit might not be glamorous but it would be a good fit for him as a working-class city with passionate fans.
Dunn reportedly wanted four years and $40 million to re-sign with the Nationals during the season. If that's still his asking price, I'd politely ask Mr. Illitch to pass the checkbook and sign the slugger on the spot. Dunn would become the designated hitter and give the Tigers a second big bat to pair with Cabrera in the middle of the lineup.
Martinez would be fallback plan if I couldn't sign Dunn. I wouldn't want him as my top catcher because of his defensive deficiencies, but instead he'd fit fine as the DH.
Speaking of catcher, Gerald Laird is a free agent. While he can shut the running game down, his offense isn't enough to pay the kind of money agent Scott Boras will be seeking for his client. Furthermore, I'm a big believer in Alex Avila and would hand the starting job to him while signing either Henry Blanco or Matt Treanor as a free agent to be the backup catcher and mentor.
One of the infield holes has already been filled with the re-signing of third baseman Brandon Inge to a two-year, $11.5 million contract. I would be inclined to also stay internal to fill the shortstop hole by exercising Jhonny Peralta's $7.5 million option for next season because of the dearth of players at that position in free agency. Peralta promised the Tigers at the end of the season that he would work hard over the winter to get in top shape so he can play the position next season and I'd hold him to it. Second base can also be manned by an in-house option with Will Rhymes and Scott Sizemore competing for the job in spring training.
If I'm successful in my bid to sign Crawford and either Dunn or Martinez, then the only lineup spot that needs to be filled is right field. While Magglio Ordonez isn't what he used to be and will be a free agent, I'd offer him a cut-rate deal, one year and $5 million with performance bonuses, to come back for one more spin. If Ordonez played hard to get, I'd throw it open to a spring training cage match between Brennan Boesch, Ryan Raburn, Clete Thomas, and Casper Wells.
If I can't use my persuasion skills to land Crawford, then those four can fight for both corner outfield spots. And what if I couldn't get Dunn or Martinez to come to Detroit, either? Well, I deserve to be fired before my 24 hours are even up.