12/7/2013 10:28 A.M. ET
Tigers may have another move up their sleeve
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
DETROIT -- The Tigers have spent their offseason to this point reallocating resources in their win-now philosophy, trading Prince Fielder and his megacontract for Ian Kinsler and his somewhat smaller contract before trading Doug Fister -- two years shy of free agency -- and signing closer Joe Nathan. With Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera both nearing the end of their contracts, it's entirely possible Detroit's next significant deal will be to keep talent, not add it.
It's also possible the Tigers go to the Winter Meetings and pull off another surprise. It might not be major, and team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski warns it almost surely won't be as big as what they've done so far, but it could be one of the most crucial moves they make for their 2014 World Series chances.
"What I have always found at the Winter Meetings is, anytime you put 30 clubs together and you start talking, your scouts start talking -- and I'm looking at my board every single day and coming up with ideas -- you try to get better," Dombrowski said. "Again, I don't know what's going to happen. It won't be like it has been the last couple weeks, but I know I won't be bored."
The Tigers are already a different-looking team than they were at season's end, one with somewhat more fundamental skills and significantly less offensive balance. They've addressed some of the weaknesses that came back to haunt them in the postseason, but now have to review how prepared they are to make a path back to the playoffs.
Here's a quick look at what's left for the Tigers to do when the Winter Meetings get going at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Left field: With plans set to move back-to-back American League MVP Cabrera back to first base and install top prospect Nick Castellanos at third, left field becomes the open spot for the Tigers to upgrade offensively. The good news for Dombrowski and his group is that it's easier to upgrade with a corner outfielder than a corner infielder this offseason. The bad news is that plenty of other teams are looking to do the same, which is expected to drive up the prices on top free agents Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Beltran, who reportedly will head to Yankees with a three-year, $45 million deal. Don't be shocked if Dombrowski explores the trade front, maybe not for a star, but either a solid regular or a right-handed hitter to mix in with Andy Dirks.
Setup relief: There's an argument to be made that Nathan's arrival doesn't address the Tigers' true bullpen weakness from last October. After all, it wasn't closer Joaquin Benoit who loaded the bases for David Ortiz's game-tying grand slam off him in Game 2 of the AL Championship Series. The bridge between Detroit's starters and closer has some good arms, but they're either young (Bruce Rondon, Ian Krol ) or have been inconsistent (Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque ) . A veteran righty along the lines of Octavio Dotel from two years ago would solidify the group.
Pitching depth: If the Tigers add a left fielder, then their bench could be pretty close to set, depending on Dirks' role. Their pitching depth, however, is thin. The farm system that used to churn out arms when needed is down to Jose Alvarez, Casey Crosby and Kyle Lobstein at the Triple-A level, at least starting out. It's tough to sell Minor League contracts on a contending team, because it usually doesn't provide much hope of a callup, but assistant GM Al Avila has recruited well the last year or two.
Clarity on new contracts: Don't expect a contract extension for Scherzer or Cabrera to come out of the Winter Meetings. Their agents have more pressing things to do, like finding jobs for free agents. If the Tigers can start laying some groundwork, however, they'll have a better idea of the task ahead of them once they do start talks after the holidays. If Scherzer sets a direct path to free agency now, though, there isn't much the Tigers can do.
Who they can trade if necessary
Dirks: The easiest solution to the Tigers' lineup, as Dombrowski pointed out, would be Dirks returning to his 2012 form. If Detroit opts to add a full-time left fielder, however, it could signal the end of Dirks' Detroit tenure. He's arbitration-eligible, the Tigers have reserve outfielders and they have more outfield prospects on the way.
RHP Rick Porcello: With Fister off to Washington, it would be an absolute shock if the Tigers traded another starter. But it's the Winter Meetings, when teams get to talk in person, and Dombrowski tends to discuss a lot of different ideas at these gatherings. Scouting opinions seem to vary widely on Porcello, which is believed to be one reason why the Tigers chose to trade Fister. Still, if another team offers Dombrowski another young arm in a package, it's not out of the question.
Castellanos: Another trade involving a Tigers top prospect was more likely before Fielder went to Texas and Cabrera went to first base. Now, unless the Tigers can add an offensive boost at third base, the sweet-swinging Castellanos is likely staying put in Detroit to get his long-awaited chance in the big leagues. He's one of the top hitting prospects in the game today, and he plays a position where good young hitters are increasingly hard to find.
2B Hernan Perez: Dombrowski had been touting the speedy Perez as Omar Infante's potential successor at second base until the Fielder trade brought over Kinsler. Now, unless the Tigers move Kinsler, Perez is ticketed for either Triple-A Toledo or a utility infield role in Detroit to start the season. The Tigers think highly of him, and with Kinsler's long-term future at second base uncertain, it's difficult to see a trade.
C James McCann: The Tigers' top pick from 2011 is the last of the young catching crop Detroit drafted over a two-year stretch (Bryan Holaday and Rob Brantly were drafted in 2010), but a late-blooming bat could make McCann the best of the bunch. He hit his way out of a defensive backup branding and into a Futures Game spot this past season at Double-A Erie. Another step forward could put him on the brink of the big leagues as the right-handed-hitting complement to Alex Avila or the Tigers could deal him for offensive help now, given the solid reports he drew from scouts who saw him over the summer.
Big contracts they might unload
None at this point. With Fielder off to Texas, the only Tigers under contract past 2015 are Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, and they're not going anywhere.
All the Tigers' dealings so far have pretty much put their payroll on track for where it was at the start of last season, right around $150 million after projecting salaries for arbitration-eligible players. As Dombrowski pointed out at the Nathan news conference, simple math shows they're not cutting payroll. The question is how much further up they can go if they want to keep Cabrera and Scherzer. Team owner Mike Ilitch has operated without a set payroll in mind, but moves so far have strongly suggested they're trying to balance things out.