Five Key Questions for the Off-season

With the off-season now upon the Tigers, for a team that came up just short in the ALCS and the core of the team returning in 2014, wholesale change isn't necessary. However, some key questions need to be answered over the next few months to prepare for the next run at the World Series, beyond just who will be managing the club.

1. What to do with Max Scherzer?

The likely Cy Young winner, Scherzer is a free agent after the 2014 season. The Tigers can do one of three things with him; 1) give him a contract extension, and accept that they'll be paying three starting pitchers more than $50 million combined for the next several years, 2) trade him for a premium return, or 3) run with him again in 2014 and take your chances on free agency that you can either re-sign him, or receive draft pick compensation.

All of the options has its advantages and disadvantages, but quite frankly, this decision will ultimately impact the Tigers moves for every other position – if they look to trade him, they could identify potential replacements for second base, left field, or the bullpen. Conversely, keeping him means they'll need to find solutions elsewhere, without having an extensive budget to do so.

2. Is Nick Castellanos ready to take over left field?

Of course the easy answer is that you want to wait and see what happens in spring training and make a decision based on that. He didn't look ready this past September, but that was also only a handful of at-bats at the end of a long season, and he produced well in Toledo despite being very young for the league.

The reason this question needs to be answered however is because if he's not, the Tigers need to look more seriously into alternatives in left field – the Andy Dirks/Matt Tuiasosopo platoon was serviceable (94 OPS+ for the year at the position), but Dirks definitely struggled to duplicate his 2012 success, and after a hot start, Tuiasosopo faded hard, not getting over the final five weeks of the season.

3. Which free agents should they bring back?

The three big free agents on this club are second baseman Omar Infante, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and closer Joaquin Benoit. Each played a crucial role on the 2013 team, though the team has obviously made alternate plans at shortstop already with the acquisition of Jose Iglesias at the trade deadline.

A high-value, short term deal for Benoit would seem preferable for the Tigers, given he was one of the few bright spots in a bullpen that had its share of struggles.

Infante remains an uncertainty; there's likely going to be a competitive market for him, especially after Robinson Cano signs and someone is still in search of an offensively-productive second basemen. The Tigers still hope Hernan Perez can be an everyday second baseman, but he didn't appear ready this season in his cameo, either.

A potential option; if Infante signs elsewhere, would the Tigers consider bringing Peralta back for a short-term deal to play second base?

4. What to do about the bullpen?

Despite the organization's investment in power arms that could shine in relief, none of that panned out in 2012, with only Bruce Rondon having any success, and he ended up sidelined for much of the final month with tenderness in his elbow.

The real question is, do the Tigers believe they have the right pieces in place already, and just need one or two arms to complement their current group, or do they need to blow it up and start from scratch?

Will Rondon be healthy, and could he close? Will Smyly move back to the rotation or stay in the ‘pen? Can Alburquerque find consistency? Will they pick up Jose Veras' option?

A bullpen with an experienced closer, two veteran setup men coupled with two youngsters should leave the Tigers feeling very comfortable about the late inning group, and then they can hope to fill in the rest within the organization. But, the Tigers also thought that's what they had THIS season, and the bullpen was never as reliable as it should have been.

5. How can the Tigers keep Miguel Cabrera healthy?

The bullpen was a problem in the playoffs, but not having the best hitter in the game at the top of his game was a HUGE issue in the final month and going into the playoffs – abdominal issues, hip injuries, a grade II (or III) groin sprain… the fact that he was able to swing a bat at all is a testament to his willingness to play through pain. But he was simply a shell of his former self.

The question becomes, what do they need to do to make sure he's healthy? Can they figure out how to get him more time at designated hitter and less time at third? It seems possible, but with everyday at-bats needed for him, Victor Martinez and Prince Fielder, the options are somewhat limited.

Whoever becomes the new manager though must absolutely go into 2014 with a plan to keep the best hitter on the planet hitting like it.

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