DETROIT -- The Tigers came within two wins of the World Series in 2011. They will return the vast majority of their roster next year to make another run at it. Teams that good, with that much talent coming back, usually don't have to worry about the last spots on their 40-man roster.
With the Tigers, though, it's usually not that easy. Between injuries and role players, they tend to use a lot of that roster, with prospects and Minor League tools players alike. As they prepare to head into next month's Winter Meetings and the Rule 5 Draft, the club has to decide how to use those final spots.
Of the 42 players on the roster and disabled list at season's end, all but five spent part of the season in Detroit. The exceptions were Cale Iorg, Jose Ortega, Ryan Strieby, Clete Thomas and Joel Zumaya, and Zumaya would have been up had he been healthy. Even in a year when the Tigers didn't have as many injuries as in recent seasons, depth was critical.
Andy Dirks earned a spot on the 40-man roster last fall, which earned him a chance to make an impression in Spring Training, which earned him a chance in Detroit as a fill-in player. Luis Marte made it from Double-A Erie to Triple-A Toledo to Detroit over the course of the summer after making the roster last fall. A Major League contract and a 40-man roster spot was the difference in signing Al Alburquerque, who became a godsend for the Tigers' bullpen at midseason.
In short, the decisions made in November make a difference in who might come up to help. They also make a difference in who might be available for other teams to grab at the Winter Meetings.
Teams have to decide after four or five pro seasons -- the difference depends on whether a player was signed before or after age 19 -- whether to put a Minor League player on the 40-man roster, or else he's available to other clubs in the Rule 5 Draft. Detroit hasn't lost anybody since the O's plucked reliever Randor Bierd after the 2007 season. Whether the Tigers could lose anyone this year is questionable at best, but they have some intriguing cases to decide.
They have to determine whether Casey Crosby's healthiest season as a pro is enough reason to protect him. They have to project whether 26-year-old Brandon Douglas has a Major League future after riding the learning curve at Double-A Erie. They have to figure out where once-promising reliever Cody Satterwhite stands after a long rehab road from labrum surgery in his right shoulder. And they have to make projections on pitchers Matt Hoffman, Jay Voss and Tyler Stohr.
With the 40-man roster currently at 34, the Tigers have the roster space to decide yes on a lot of guys. They can't do it on everybody, especially with at least a couple of those spots likely to stay open for free-agent signings or trades. They have to decide by Friday's deadline, both whom to keep and whom to possibly take off.
Crosby would seem to be the easiest choice to add to the roster. Four-plus years after he was a steal for the Tigers in the same Draft as Rick Porcello, the big, high-strikeout left-hander is back to showing promise on the mound, both with a solid year in Erie's rotation and an effectively wild stint in the Arizona Fall League. At age 23, he could be ready for a midseason callup, either as a starter or as part of the bullpen.
Hoffman has never cracked the organizational top prospect lists, but the lefty reliever, who turns 23 on Friday, is coming off essentially a full season at Triple-A Toledo with some solid numbers.
The same Erie rotation that hosted Crosby's big season saw the surprising emergence of Voss, best known as the prospect the Tigers received from Florida in the Nate Robertson trade two years ago. After being converted exclusively to a starter, the big lefty put up some stingy stats, enough to likely make him worth another look.
Douglas was once considered a second baseman to watch in the system, and might still see the big leagues. With his combination of power and speed, he's still a somebody to watch in an organization that lacks a second baseman of the future. But at age 26, it has to happen soon. The same goes for Justin Henry, who added outfield versatility to his middle-infield work this year and jumped his batting average to .314 between Erie and Toledo.
Stohr showed middle relief potential at Lakeland and Erie, but still has to face hitters in the upper levels. He had a decent Arizona Fall League stint going until a rough finale that saw him give up four runs on a hit and three walks in two-thirds of an inning.
Ben Guez has proven to be one of the more useful outfielders in the Tigers' system, playing 95 games with the Mud Hens with respectable all-around numbers this year. But without a standout category, it's uncertain whether that's enough to get him on the roster and make him the next outfielder in line for a call.
Then there's Gustavo Nunez, once touted as a shortstop to watch after a stellar 2009 season at Class A West Michigan. His offense dipped dramatically the next season at Lakeland, but he recovered well this year to post decent numbers at Lakeland and Erie. He's one of the better base stealers the system has, and at age 23, he still has room for growth in a system needing strong middle infielders.