Before getting into all of those questions however, let's put to bed what is set. Miguel Cabrera will be hitting cleanup and starting as the team's first baseman. There's no guarantee Curtis Granderson will be hitting leadoff again (and all indications are that it's time for Granderson to slide down into the two or three hole), but Granderson will find himself entrenched in centerfield.
And that's where the guarantees end.
If Magglio Ordonez returns, he'll be hitting somewhere in the heart of the order (likely third), and starting once again in right field. The problem could arise that if the Tigers need to cut payroll, Ordonez is one of the high priced players the Tigers have left that is still marketable and would provide a good return. That question likely won't be answered until the Tigers have a better idea of how much their payroll will need to be slashed.
One player almost assuredly not returning (at least not at his given salary) is Edgar Renteria. The Tigers hold a $12 million option over Renteria, and given his poor offensive production and mediocre defense, it's unlikely the Tigers are going to stretch to that amount. The Tigers could likely find a shortstop that can give the club similar production and better defense for half that cost on a short term deal. Orlando Cabrera from the White Sox could be a prime example.
Short term of course, because the Tigers have quite a few minor league options coming up through the ranks that could compete for the shortstop job. Beyond Ramon Santiago (who is realistically better off as a utility infielder), the Tigers have Mike Hollimon, Danny Worth and Cale Iorg, all of whom are big league caliber players, and all of whom will be ready within the next year or two.
Renteria's 2008 up-the-middle partner, Placido Polanco, is likely to return, barring an offer the Tigers can't refuse. Polanco is a solid hitter, a professional ballplayer, and comes at a relatively modest price ($4.6 million). There's also the added incentive of Polanco entering a contract year, and with this likely be the last time he'll be looking for a big deal, he will have every possible incentive to be ready to perform at his peak level.
Moving onto veterans whose role is undefined at this point – Carlos Guillen and Gary Sheffield are huge question marks going into 2009. Combined, they're responsible for $20 million in payroll, and based on the '08 season, neither seem capable of playing a position in the field on an everyday basis. Sheffield's throwing arm seems to make it impossible for him to play in the field, while Guillen's knee and back problems have it too difficult for him to take the field, regardless of position.
The Tigers will struggle to justify paying that much money to a pair of guys that will combine to provide DH and pinch hit duties – but is there any way to move either? Unlikely, at least not without eating almost all of the player's contract. So the Tigers could very well find their bench filled with two players that will combine to split DH duties, with Guillen likely getting the occasional look somewhere on the left side of the infield.
And the left side of the infield brings to light one of the biggest question marks on the field – third base. Guillen could play there, but it doesn't seem like his body will let him and keep him around for 130-plus games. Brandon Inge is clearly the best defensive option (as he arguably might be the best defensive third basemen in all of baseball), but the bottom line is, Inge doesn't hit enough.
A good defensive catcher that works well with pitchers is hard to find, and one that is a below-average hitter is acceptable given the first two characteristics. Third base doesn't have those same requirements, and needs more of a bat there.
While shortstop is certainly a need, the Tigers appear to have options from within to plug in there. Unless the Tigers are comfortable with some sort of Ryan Raburn/Hollimon/Guillen platoon, the Tigers are going to need to look outside the organization at a free agent like Joe Crede. Jeff Larish will likely continue to get work at the hot corner in the hopes of converting him, but Larish doesn't possess the natural skill set to be a third baseman, and any attempt at using him there regularly will likely just result in frustrated defensive play.
Moving back behind the plate – the Tigers seem to be ready to anoint Inge as the team's catcher, assuming that once he has a full offseason of work and preparation behind the dish, he'll have a better handle on the role and will return to his form that made him a top prospect there. But the key could very well be Dusty Ryan, the recently-emerged top prospect in the organization behind the dish. Ryan has always been strong defensively and has come on in a big way at the plate in '08 – to the point that should Inge struggle, a platoon with Ryan wouldn't be out of the question.
And finally, we finish up in left field, where the Tigers have options, but obviously hope one specific player emerges. Matt Joyce emerged, albeit a bit earlier than preferable, as a strong fielder and a player that has some real pop. Joyce has trailed off a bit as the season has wore on, but given the everyday job and everyday at-bats, there is no reason to believe Joyce can't hit 20–25 home runs with a strong walk rate and good gap power. Marcus Thames, if he returns, will also likely factor in as far as playing time is concerned, but with Thames being as streaky as he is, and always a question mark defensively, there's no telling how many at-bats he'll actually see.
2008 has been a disappointment, and while the offense has still produced and been one of the best in the American League, there is still plenty of improvement to be had. Now it's time to see if the Tigers can stay healthy, and find the money to make the lineup the formidable one everyone expected to see in 2008.