How Much Longer Is Detroit’s Window Open?

The Detroit Tigers were really good in 2011, making it to the ALCS one year after finishing at just .500. Then 2012 went even better, where despite winning fewer regular season games they made it to the World Series, and 2013 was successful as well, going back to the ALCS. That’s a pretty excellent run of success, and they’re likely to be right back in the mix in 2014, since they return the majority of their core. But they still haven’t turned any of those seasons into a champion, and for a city that will next year be three decades past celebrating their last Tigers World Series winner, close isn’t good enough — and you start to wonder when this iteration runs out of chances.

That’s especially true for owner Mike Ilitch, who turned 84 this summer and has made it clear that he wants to see a winner in his hometown, for the first time since he purchased the club in 1992, while he’s still around to enjoy it. As if getting back to the ALCS (or beyond) for a fourth year in a row wasn’t going to be difficult enough, the Tigers find themselves contending with forces that make 2014 possibly their last best chance to get a championship out of this group.

The good news is this: The Tigers return most of their team in 2014. Eight of the nine members of the starting lineup return (this presumes that Jose Iglesias has already claimed shortstop from Jhonny Peralta), with only second baseman Omar Infante a pending free agent. All five members of what was one of the best starting rotations baseball has seen in decades are under team control as well. Manager Jim Leyland won’t be back, but that shouldn’t stand in the way of success; After all, Leyland took the team to the World Series in his first year in Detroit in 2006.

Also working in the favor of the Tigers is that the main trio of Justin Verlander (31 in 2014), Miguel Cabrera (also 31), and Prince Fielder (30) remains in their primes. However, the cracks of age may be beginning to show there. Verlander had his worst season since 2008 before bouncing back in the playoffs, while Fielder and his untradeable contract had arguably his lousiest season since his rookie year of 2006, in addition to completely disappearing in October. Cabrera is the presumptive AL MVP and had what might be considered a career year, but was consistently slowed in the second half by a variety of aches and pains. The three combined for 18.5 WAR in 2011 (when Fielder was still in Milwaukee), 18.6 in 2012, but only 15 in 2013.

None of this is to suggest that these three don’t remain productive, because they do, and no one’s expecting them to fall off a cliff in 2014. With the collection of talent this team still has, it’s very difficult to see this team not being right back in the playoff mix, especially since they look to again be the most talented team in the AL Central. (Chicago is light years away from contention, while at least Minnesota has Byron Buxton to look forward to; Kansas City & Cleveland made noise this year, but have yet to prove they can make the next step.)

But as the Big Three move into their thirties, that’s also what makes next year so important. We don’t yet know if Verlander’s down year was the result of poor mechanics or the inevitable effects of years of heavy use. We don’t yet know if Fielder is starting a Ryan Howard-like decline (wOBA from .410 to .398 to .358 over the last three years), but we do know he doesn’t have the body type that generally ages well, and we don’t know how much longer Cabera will be able to fake his way at third base as he ages. We can say with easy confidence that this trio will remain very good next year, it’s just a lot harder to say that about 2015 and beyond.

It’s also an important year because it’s the final contract years for Max Scherzer, Torii Hunter, and Victor Martinez, who all contributed greatly to the 2013 club. Scherzer is likely to win the AL Cy Young this year, a distinction of which he is deserving even without his 21 wins. Hunter, even at 37 this year with slipping defense, provided a valuable bat and 2.5 WAR. Martinez, after an atrocious start, rebounded with a .391 second-half wOBA that would have been a career-high had it been over a full season.

After next year, those three are either going to be gone or, in Scherzer’s case, back on a much more expensive contract. With those holes to fill in 2015 and another year of age on the back of the main trio, 2014 represents the ultimate win-now opportunity for Detroit.

Unfortunately, there’s not much help coming from the minors, after years of trading prospects like Jacob Turner (to Miami in the Anibal Sanchez deal) and giving up draft picks (to sign Fielder & Martinez). For example, MLB.com had Daniel Fields as the #3 prospect in the system this year, and it took him nearly three full seasons just to get out of A-ball. Keith Law ranked the Detroit farm system #25 entering the year; Nick Castellanos was the sole Tigers prospect on Marc Hulet’s preseason Top 100, and his value might be lower if he’s truly an outfielder rather than a third baseman now.

And of course, while the majority of the team returns, the bullpen — which was a major hole all season long — might lose free agent Joaquin Benoit, who along with Drew Smyly was one of the few worthwhile relievers they could pull together.

So what can the Tigers do to take advantage? They’ll need to be creative, because a team that had a $148 million Opening Day payroll in 2013 already has $120 million committed to Fielder, Cabrera, Verlander, Sanchez, Martinez, & Hunter, a number which also includes a presumed $12m arbitration award for Scherzer if he’s not otherwise extended.

First and foremost, they’re going to need to fix that bullpen. It’s pretty commonly accepted at this point that doling out big dollars to veteran closers is a good way to get burned, but the Tigers may be in the rare situation where that makes sense, with a team that has money to spend, a win-now mentality, and a recent history of getting burned in the ninth. Perhaps that means Brian Wilson, who revived his career late in the season in Los Angeles, or finding a lousy team who really ought to be trading off a closer they don’t currently need, like Miami’s Steve Cishek or Chicago’s Addison Reed. Or maybe even both, plus a useful arm like a J.P. Howell or Francisco Rodriguez, because a bullpen that at various times employed Jose Valverde, Jeremy Bonderman, & Octavio Dotel this year clearly has more than one hole to fill.

If the Tigers do go for such a trade, they may need to include Castellanos, who is probably ready for the bigs in 2014 and could take over in left field, but who is expected to be a good player, not an elite one. Instead, assuming Ilitch is willing to stretch the budget a little further, more expensive outfielders like Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo would each be excellent fits, because not only do the Tigers have an opening in the outfield, they have one atop the order, where Austin Jackson’s .337 OBP can and should be improved upon. Ellsbury & Choo are each Scott Boras clients, and we’ve seen Boras and Detroit work together well in recent years. Those players are likely to cost another draft pick, assuming they receive qualifying offers, but whether we think it wise or not, that hasn’t stopped Detroit before.

And if they really want to get brave? Scherzer’s situation is going to need to be resolved one way or another, and if trading him at peak value can fill multiple holes, a rotation of Verlander / Sanchez / Fister / Porcello / Smyly (or a league-average veteran) perhaps isn’t the worst thing in the world.

No matter how they do it, the Tigers are likely to be once again one of the American League’s best teams in 2014, even if we don’t yet know who will be leading them from the dugout. But if they want this era of the team to be remembered for more than getting extremely close yet not all the way, 2014 might just be their last best chance to make it happen. Expect an offseason that keeps that goal in mind.



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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.


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