Five Key Tigers Offseason Questions

With the offseason upon us, sooner than most Tigers fans were hoping, we enter another pivotal time for the organization, as they have decisions to make on a number of key free agents. Plus, how do they address the failures in 2014, most notably the bullpen, that cost them so dearly? We examine five key offseason questions inside.

1. Who will replace Max Scherzer in the starting rotation?

While both parties are saying the right things, the writing has been on the wall since negotiations got ugly in spring training, when the Tigers went public with their rejected offer of 6-years, $144 million. To his credit, Scherzer made his gamble well worth it, duplicating his 2013 success in which he won the Cy Young, with a similar FIP, an improved strikeout rate, and a slightly higher but still excellent ERA. Suffice it to say someone is going to offer Scherzer a contract with nine figures that starts with a two, and that team won’t be the Tigers.

Given that the Tigers will already be paying their other four starters upwards of $10 million each, it’s highly unlikely the Tigers will pursue someone like Jon Lester, either. It’s possible that they’ll go after a mid-level starting pitcher like Brandon McCarthy or Jake Peavy, as both would fill a role for the club without breaking the bank like the top group would. Alternatively, they could also place some more faith in their farm system and open the job up to competition among left-handers Robbie Ray and Kyle Lobstein and right-hander Drew VerHagen.

Either direction they go, it’s hard to see the Tigers having a rotation that will be the best in baseball for the fourth straight year.

2. Can the Tigers bring back Victor Martinez?

At 35 years old, Martinez just had a career year for the club. Despite being primarily a designated hitter, he was good for 4.4 fWAR, with a .411 wOBA. The problem is that he’s been so good that he’s likely earned himself a serious raise on the free agent market, one the Tigers might not be willing to match. If Martinez were looking for a two-year deal worth $25 million this fall, the Tigers would likely do the deal in a heartbeat. But would you give someone that will be 36 before next Opening Day a three-year deal for $45 or $50 million?

Based on his performance this year, it’d still be worth it, but that’s a pretty big limb to go out on that a 38-year old’s body will hold up. On the other hand, if the Tigers lose Martinez, there’s no obvious alternative on the free agent market to replace him, especially given the announcements by Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham of their plans to retire. Tiger-killer Nelson Cruz will be on the market, but without draft pick compensation, will command a deal similar to that of V-Mart.

The Tigers could hope to retain Martinez for one season by getting him to sign the one-year tender offer (worth about $14 million), because the available alternatives like Billy Butler aren’t very appealing.

3. How do the Tigers fix the bullpen?

General manager Dave Dombrowski thought he had addressed the group, elevating the role of right-handed fireballer Bruce Rondon, trading for hard-throwing lefty Ian Krol, and signing RHP Joe Nathan to close and right-hander Joba Chamberlain to set up. In addition, he traded for right-hander Joakim Soria in July to help boost the back end of the group. Tigers fans probably don’t need to re-live how that group turned out though.

So, where to from here? Well, the Tigers first have to make a decision on whether or not Soria is worth bringing back for $7 million (or a $500K buyout of his option). After that, is the club content with Joe Nathan as the closer? Can Krol be that shutdown lefty they thought they were getting in the Doug Fister trade? Is going after 39-year old Koji Uehara a worthwhile pursuit, or should the club look to spend more heavily in former-Tiger, lefty Andrew Miller?

While the Tigers can certainly hope that Krol finds his groove and that Rondon rebounds fully from Tommy John surgery, they simply can’t count on that. And after a year in which they didn’t have a single reliable late-inning reliever all year long, and had just one two years ago, this must be a group overhaul that involves a number of upgrades, not just one new member and a discount flier.

4. What are the Tigers going to do in the outfield?

After a remarkable, out of nowhere season, J.D. Martinez has certainly locked down one of the three outfield spots in 2015, likely in left field.

But what about center field and right field? Could Rajai Davis actually fill in at center for a full season, despite questionable defense? Can the club count on Andy Dirks after losing his entire 2014 season to back and hamstring injuries? Are Tyler Collins or Steven Moya ready to take on a role at the big league level?

The group above doesn’t seem like a group that could make up an everyday starting lineup, but if the Tigers don’t bring Hunter back, it’s hard to see which direction they’d go. Players like Alex Rios, Colby Rasmus and Nick Markakis were not huge strengths to their respective clubs, yet represent some of the best options on the free agent market. Cuban defector Yosmani Tomas could be an option, but would the Tigers be willing to get into another bidding war for an unproven player that they haven't seen face big league competition? Hard to say. If there were ever a position ripe for some Dombrowski-wizardry, someplace in the outfield would probably be it.

5. Will Alex Avila need to hang up his cleats due to concussion issues?

Avila suffered another concussion in the ALDS, his third concussion since last season, and a sign that there’s increasing concern about his ability to stay healthy behind the plate. Avila hasn’t been great offensively, but is still an underrated defensive catcher who pitchers love working with, and holds his own to provide average productivity at offense.

That’s a useful player at a difficult position to fill, only at what cost is it too much? Avila seems determined to return, but at some point, his long-term mental health has to be taken into account, as well. The Tigers may not be able to force Avila to retire, but they could also make the decision to not continue to put an at-risk player in harm’s way.

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