Important Offseason Looming: Part 1

As the Detroit Tigers complete their season, it is time to realize that the offseason is upon us. It is not too bold to say that the upcoming offseason will be extremely important in determining the direction of the franchise. Are the Tigers destined to take the next step and become contenders again? Or will the organization continue to flounder in mediocrity as it has for over a decade?

Most followers are aware of the Tigers impending free agents. Starting pitcher Jason Johnson, outfielders Rondell White and Bobby Higginson, infielder Fernando Vina, and catcher Vance Wilson will all be free to seek employment elsewhere this offseason. Both Vina and Higginson have spent nearly the entire 2005 season on the disable list, as their careers appear to be winding to a close. The financial freedom awarded the organization with the expiration of Higginson's overwhelming contract will be a welcome advantage heading into the free agent season.

After coming over from the Mets, Vance Wilson was expected to provide both solid offense and defense from the backup catcher's role. While his overall numbers have been disappointing, his playing time has been more erratic than originally expected. It appears Ivan Rodriguez' dramatic offseason weight loss has left him in better condition to handle catching on a more regular basis. With such sporadic playing time, Wilson has struggled to find the consistency often necessary for offensive success. There is a slim chance the Tigers opt to bring Wilson back as a member of the bench in 2006, but it is likely there are cheaper options that can provide adequate production.

Rondell White and Jason Johnson provide an interesting case for the front office. The Tigers can offer both players arbitration, allowing them to receive compensation picks in the 2006 draft should they decide to sign with other teams. However, if either player accepts arbitration, the Tigers are forced to bring them back for another season.

White's case is a particularly tricky one; complicated further by his shoulder problems. Rondell has always been injury prone, and with continued shoulder problems, his ability to play the field continues to diminish. The last thing the Tigers need is another designated hitter taking up space on the roster. Offering arbitration to White is a gamble that is unlikely to pay dividends for an organization that needs to move forward.

Johnson on the other hand, would be a useful player to have on the roster in 2006. Jason's improvements under pitching coach Bob Cluck have made him a valuable veteran cog in an otherwise young rotation. After a season in which Johnson has posted 4.54 ERA in 204 innings so far, he would be likely to receive a slight raise from his 2005 salary of $4 million. If the Tigers opt to offer arbitration to Johnson (or sign him outright), some pressure to help complete the 2006 rotation will be alleviated.

In addition to the aforementioned free agents, both Dmitri Young and reliever Jamie Walker are likely to return to Detroit in 2006. The contract signed by Dmitri Young after arriving from Cincinnati allows him to remain a Tiger in 2006 after having reached 500 plate appearances this season. However unfortunate this may be from a perspective of value, the Tigers have no one to blame but themselves.

Since signing with the Tigers prior to the 2002 season, lefty Jamie Walker has consistently ranked as one of their top relievers. Detroit recognized his value last offseason, resigning him to a one-year contract with an option for 2006. If the Tigers choose to exercise Walker's option, it will be in the amount of $1.25 million with some minor incentives that could push the total value to $1.4 million. With Walker having logged another very good season, it is likely the Tigers will choose to solidify their bullpen by keeping Jamie in the fold.

Additional players whose contracts expire in some sense include: starters Jeremy Bonderman, Mike Maroth and Sean Douglass, relievers Franklyn German, Craig Dingman, and Vic Darensbourg, and position players Brandon Inge, Craig Monroe, Carlos Pena, and Joey McDonald. Those least likely to return are Darensbourg, McDonald, and possibly Carlos Pena.

Pena's continued first half struggles and general lack of improvement leave the organization with no choice but to move on with Chris Shelton as the first baseman of the future, but with another hot fall, Pena has made a case for sticking around. Both Douglass and Dingman have been reasonably effective since joining the club this summer, and they could be asked to return if other options are not considered upgrades or a better value.

Bonderman, German, Inge, Maroth, and Monroe are all arbitration eligible this offseason and all will likely be offered the opportunity to return. Unless a significant upgrade is found, usurping their spot on the roster, we should expect to see all four return to Comerica Park next season.

Considering Bonderman again showed improvement in 2005, it may be prudent to begin negotiating a long-term contract that essentially buys out his arbitration eligible seasons, and possibly his first two or three years of free agency. If the Tigers are looking for a guide to start the negotiating process, they need not look further than Oakland's Rich Harden, who signed a 4-year, $9 million contract extension in April. Bonderman and Harden are both considered two of the top young pitchers in baseball, and both warrant similar contracts that will provide the team and the player with added security.

With at least $20 million sure to come off the books at the conclusion of the season, and a promise from owner Mike Illitch to continue adding payroll, The Tigers are expected to be players in a rather weak free agent season. While some of that money will be taken up by increases for many of the players mentioned above, the Tigers will still have significant flexibility to sign free agents to fill their needs.

In their current state, the Tigers should be continuing to explore opportunities to upgrade the team at any position; without restriction. In particular, the lineup is in need of an upgrade at third base, and a powerful left-handed bat.

While Brandon Inge has made significant progress at the plate since 2003, he continues to demonstrate that he simply isn't cut out to be an everyday Major Leaguer. The Tigers may be best suited by upgrading third base, allowing Inge to move back to the role of "super-sub," where his versatility and athleticism can truly benefit the team.

Over the course of the season, dominating right-handed pitchers have exposed the Detroit lineup. Without enough left-handed bats (particularly power threats), the Tigers offense has been susceptible to being overmatched by top-notch righties, late in games. In addition to these needs, an organization can never have enough pitching, particularly effective bullpen arms; meaning upgrades on the mound are certainly possible.

This offseason poses several intriguing questions for the Tigers; and that is without looking beyond the Major League roster. The decisions faced below the veneer of the Major League team will be just as critical in determining the direction of the organization as those highlighted above. Check back tomorrow for Part 2, and a look at the remainder of the 40-man roster, players with upcoming Rule 5 eligibility, and the ongoing dilemmas throughout the minor league system.

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