Whether we realize it or not, all the moves made below the Major Leagues are intertwined, with ramifications felt on the 40-man roster as well as subsequent promotions and demotions throughout the system. The first important step of this process is to evaluate the talent (or lack there of) on the organization's 40-man roster.
The list of free agents described in Part 1 of this article (Johnson, White, Vina, Higginson, etc.) will all come off the 40-man roster at the beginning of the free agent season. With the removal of these players, the Tigers will be left with 39 players with which to work (Higginson, Vina, and White are all presently on the 60-day DL and do not count against the 40-man roster).
Now, opinions on who should be removed from a 40-man roster and who should be added are as varied as anything. From my perspective, the following players could easily be removed from the 40-man roster at minimal risk to the overall health of the organization: Doug Creek, Vic Darensbourg, Craig Dingman, Matt Ginter, Jason Karnuth, Preston Larrison, Adam Peterson, John McDonald, and Carlos Pena.
The aforementioned players, while certainly valuable in some respects, are players that are quite easily replaced. None of them are the type of player an organization should be overly concerned with holding too close to the vest. While not all of these players will be removed from the roster, several will likely be jettisoned in favor of incoming free agents and other scrap heap reclamation projects.
Aside from making room for incoming free agents, another critical aspect of clearing room on the 40-man roster is to protect some of your own minor leaguers from the Rule 5 draft. Each year, every organization faces several important and difficult decisions about which players must be protected from being selected by another team in the December draft.
This year, the Tigers are faced with four players who almost certainly must be added to the roster; super prospect Joel Zumaya, former top pick Kyle Sleeth, breakout pitcher Jordan Tata, and highly touted outfielder Brent Clevlen. If not added to the 40-man roster, it is likely that another team would find a way to carry them on their active roster for the 2006 season. All four players have the potential to make an impact at the Major League level, and the Tigers must make sure they recognize this fact.
In addition to the obvious four players, there are several other players who may be of interest to teams in the Rule 5 draft. Players like David Espinosa, Juan Tejeda, Kody Kirkland, Humberto Sanchez, Eulogio de la Cruz, Brian Rogers, and even Virgil Vasquez could end up being a good fit for an organization in need of help on the cheap.
It is unlikely that any of these players would be chosen, as each player has their significant faults at this point, but the Tigers must carefully consider each one for fear of losing talent that could easily be kept. The Tigers, as an organization, should still be in a mode of talent acquisition by any means available, rather than risking the loss of talent through something like the Rule 5 draft.
As players are dropped from the 40-man roster, lost to the Rule 5 draft, or even lost as minor league free agents, spots throughout the organizational ladder will open up, providing opportunities for other players to advance. At the top of this list are Erie's offensive duo of Juan Tejeda and David Espinosa. Despite very nice 2004 seasons from both players, they were relegated back to AA for another season. In 2005, both players displayed the ability to be successful in the Eastern League yet again, and will certainly need to be challenged by a trip to Toledo in 2006. If the organization opts not to promote them, it may be best for them to start thinking about another organization they might like to play for.
One enormous task that has been on general manager Dave Dombrowski's plate since he arrived in Detroit has been to rebuild an empty farm system. While Dombrowski has increased the depth and overall talent of the minor league system, the Tigers have not managed to rid themselves of organizational fodder that is blocking the progress of more promising youngsters.
Players like Andrew Graham, Edwin Almonte, Russ Cleveland, and Derek Nicholson have no place in an organization that needs to challenge it's young players with difficult assignments, and get it's top talent to the Major League level in short order. This off-season provides a perfect opportunity for the Tigers to scrub their system clean of players with little future at the higher reaches of the organization, allowing them to challenge newcomers like Jeff Larish, Michael Hollimon, and even the recently signed Cameron Maybin.
Overall, this off-season represents an opportunity for the Tigers to improve in several facets. Not only are they losing players who were hardly contributing to the success of the team (Higginson and Vina), but they are beginning to narrow down the list of positions that are in dire need of an upgrade. Rather than seeking upgrades all around the diamond, the Tigers can focus on areas of more precise concern, such as third base, adding power to the lineup, and potentially more starting and relief pitching. This is a much improved circumstance than the one Dombrowski and crew found themselves in just two years ago.
While improving at the Major League level, the organization must continue the momentum gained by having a minor league system that led baseball in organizational winning percentage, by getting rid of players with little future and allowing their own prospects to blossom in the roles opened by those vacancies.
The Tigers are in position to take the next, albeit not the final, step towards becoming a competitive franchise once again. If they make the right moves and place their focus on the long-term health of the organization, this off-season could prove to be pivotal in the grand scheme.