Coaching Staff to Return, Others in Question

Dave Dombrowski elected to come out with it early and put to end any speculation of job insecurity. Manager Alan Trammell and his entire staff will return next season in their same roles – meaning the entire crew will return together for round 3, a rare feat for a major league club. But while the coaches are all coming back, the same can't be said for a few players.

Manager Alan Trammell certainly received his fair share of criticism in his second season as the Tiger skipper. It was in all honesty in his first helping, after a first season in which the club struggled to field a team that would qualify as "major league". Nonetheless, Trammell, as well as his entire team of coaches, will return for their third year together. That includes everyone (unless someone elects voluntarily to move on), from pitching coach Bob Cluck to hitting coach Bruce Fields.

And while that entire group will return – the same can't be said for all of the players. Nothing is set in stone, but when 3B Eric Munson limped off the field after injuring his calf on a pop-up in the 8th inning, it very well may have been his last appearance as a Tiger. Munson's defensive struggles coupled with his low batting average left him on the bench in favor of utility man Brandon Inge, a role Munson is unlikely to accept. An offseason trade and a fresh start for Munson will probably be in order.

Another probably on his way out is one who made plenty of noise to start the season, only to fall by the wayside due to hamstring problems. Alex Sanchez wowed everyone with his speed and bunting ability, but questionable play in Centerfield plus a lack of patience at the plate will probably mean the team will look to trade the Outfielder, or possibly simply non-tender him.

Yet another who will be the subject of much discussion over the offseason is Bobby Higginson. Higginson will enter the final year of his contract, scheduled to make $8.85 million. However, Higginson certainly hasn't performed up to the level of his contract, and it's possible that the Tigers might simply elect to eat his salary and give the playing time to someone else.

The pitching spectrum of the team is far less settled, with almost everyone (with a few exceptions) having their job up in the air. It's safe to say that Jeremy Bonderman and Wilfredo Ledezma have spots with the 2005 rotation locked up. Nate Robertson and Mike Maroth probably do as well, although the possibility remains that both could be moved (especially Maroth) over the offseason.

The Tigers alleged ace, Jason Johnson, has a far more questionable future. He certainly didn't perform up to expectations in 2004, and if the team elects to make a push for a big name starter to add to the top of the rotation, Johnson could be the odd man out.

As for the bullpen, not a single person appears to be guaranteed a job heading into next season. Jamie Walker will probably return as the team's lefty reliever, but hopefully will not be expected to perform as a setup man as much. The same goes for Esteban Yan, who the team believes would be best off in middle relief, as opposed to the 8th inning role Yan filled for much of the season (and closer for the final month).

Ugueth Urbina's future is obviously in question as well. With the kidnapping of his mother, there's no telling when Urbina might be ready to return to baseball, if ever. He contemplated retirement before the 2004 season, and has publicly stated that he takes blame for the kidnapping, and that if he had been in his native Venezuela with her, it never would have happened. The team does hold a $4 million option on Urbina, but will investigate the situation carefully before using it. That money, if not used on Urbina, would obviously go towards finding his replacement.

The rest of the bullpen performed poorly for most, if not all, of the season, so expect a rather large revamping of the group. Only youngsters like Steve Colyer and Franklyn German should be expected to receive another shot at making an impact with the group in 2005.

While much of the previous offseason was spent trying to return the team to respectability, this offseason will be more aimed at targeting problem areas and making key decisions. Is it time for the Tigers to make a move for a legitimate ace? Is Brandon Inge better suited as the starting Third Baseman, or the utility role he was originally slated for? If pursued, will top free agents ignore the Tigers efforts, or will the 29 wins make a difference in deciding to listen to Dombrowksi's pitch?

All these questions will need to be answered over the next few months. But before we move into offseason mode, it's important to take a minute and enjoy the 2004 campaign – the year major league baseball returned to the Motor City.

And now that we're back to respectability . . . about that 17 year playoff drought . . .

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