While there are certainly issues that have to be resolved when it comes to the Tigers' lineup and defensive rotation, the Tigers struggles in 2008 cannot be attributed to this group. While the early season struggles certainly can be attributed to the offense's slow start, the remainder of the season the Tigers have had one of the best offenses in baseball, and certainly strong enough to have competed for the playoffs. The Tigers have been among the top five teams in runs scored in the AL almost all season long, and currently sit fourth in OPS at .785, including an .815 OPS after the All-Star break.
What will need some serious attention however, is the Tigers' pitching staff.
Starting with the rotation, which had so many issues this season, will need to be addressed big time this offseason. The problem is, how?
For starters, the Tigers can pencil Justin Verlander and Armando Galarraga into the group. Galarraga has been the Tigers' best starter all season long, pitching consistently well, and rarely taking the mound and not giving the Tigers a chance to win. And for all of Verlander's struggles, take away two starts against the White Sox in which manager Jim Leyland admittedly left Verlander in too long, and his ERA would be 4.33.
In addition, all indications are that Jeremy Bonderman should make a full recovery from the blood clot that sidelined him for most of 2008, and will be able to be penciled into the 2009 rotation. That leaves two slots open.
To fill one of the slots, the Tigers could elect to pursue a top free agent – however, the Tigers are likely to be reducing payroll after their disappointing year, and won't have the $15 million or so per year necessary to command a top starter, like C.C. Sabathia.
If that indeed is the case, the Tigers will have to get creative in finding where to find a fourth starter from – one likely possibility could very well be trading Magglio Ordonez. Either way, the Tigers need to find a fourth starter that they can enter 2009 with feeling entirely comfortable penciling him in the slot. Could that pitcher be Freddy Garcia? It's clear that the Tigers signed him to the six week contract that they did to find out.
The final slot should be left open for competition – the Tigers will likely bring back Nate Robertson, Dontrelle Willis and Zach Miner all with the potential start, and with all three having minimal trade value, it's unlikely any of them will be moved. By utilizing competition, the Tigers can hope that at least one of the three will truly step up and emerge as reliable, and in an optimistic view, could actually find multiple guys that can be used as either additional bullpen help, or possibly used in a trade.
Which leads to arguably the biggest problem of all entering 2009 (and as was stated many times, the biggest concern in 2008) . . . the bullpen. Unfortunately, there are far more questions than there are answers as of now. Fernando Rodney has been stable as of late, but considering his history and track record, a short stretch of relative control is in no way an indication there will no further hiccups.
The one pitcher that is almost a lock to return? Bobby Seay, who once again has proven himself as a reliable middle inning left-hander.
Joel Zumaya is quite possibly the biggest wild card of them all in this group. Zumaya's triple-digit fastball has become increasingly more hittable over the past two seasons, and without the development of a reliable off-speed pitch (which can largely be attributed to injury), will likely never become the lights out closer the Tigers expected.
What does that mean? The Tigers can likely expect Zumaya to be in the 'pen come 2009, but relying on him to close would simply be foolish at this point, when he's struggled staying healthy.
So, unless the Tigers feel comfortable with Rodney coming in as the closer in 2009, the Tigers will be on the market for on this off-season. There will definitely be options available (with Francisco Rodriguez and Kerry Wood leading the market among those still near their peak performance years). Regardless of where the payroll ends up, the Tigers are going to have to find room to afford a reliable free agent closer.
As for the remainder of the bullpen, the Tigers should likely expect to add another veteran or two to the staff to help shore things up, while filling in the remaining slots with those that are left. The Tigers will have the two pitchers remaining from the rotation competition available, and will also have guys like Casey Fien and Freddy Dolsi that will make a case for a role in the 'pen.
What does all of this mean? The pitching staff isn't a complete disaster, but the Tigers will have to hope for some better fortunes, and will still have to spend some money to try and shore up a staff that woefully underperformed and is ultimately the reason why the Tigers are already look toward 2009.