Five questions facing the Tigers this offseason

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Detroit general manager Al Avila (bottom center) will need to decide whether to bring back Cameron Maybin (bottom left) and Francisco Rodriguez (bottom right). JD Martinez (top left) may be trade bait and Victor Martinez (top right) is still owed a lot of money.

For the second consecutive season the Detroit Tigers missed the playoffs, and now there are many questions facing this franchise as they near the end of the an era where this current core group of players will be performing at a high level together.

One offseason issue has already been addressed: manager Brad Ausmus will be back for a fourth season with the Detroit Tigers. But what will his roster look like in 2017?

How long can Victor Martinez contribute before his body breaks down?

A few days before Christmas, Victor Martinez will turn 38 years old. He’s coming off  a decent season, having produced an 826 OPS (on-base plus slugging), a mark that ranked fifth in the AL among designated hitters and 23rd overall in the AL. VMart rebounded from an injury-plagued 2015 season and increased his homer total by 16. But he slowed as the season wore on, going for a 743 OPS in September/October. Yes, he was able to play 154 games, his second-most since becoming a Tiger, but Martinez is a fragile commodity. Every swing, every run down to first, every slide is a hold-your-breath experience. How long can VMart stay above average at the DH slot?

This is an important question to address for Detroit because VMart serves as protection in the lineup for Miguel Cabrera. If he grinds to a crawl like he did in 2015, Miggy gets pitched around (Cabrera received the most intentional walks in the AL in 2016).

But Detroit’s in a tight spot with VMart, they owe him $18 million in each of the next two seasons, his last paycheck due in his 39-year old season. With that type of money invested in their aging switch-hitting designated hitter, there’s little wriggle room. It’s not like Victor can put the catching gear on anymore. Admittedly, he’s still a dangerous hitter, but he’s one-dimensional.

Will Detroit groom a replacement? Will they start to make the move to transition Cabrera to DH (which is where he’s headed eventually). Ideally, the club would love to have the DH spot open to allow veteran players like Cabrera, Kinsler, and Upton a chance to get 5-10 games there. If another team wants to eat some of Victor’s salary and the Tigers are out of the race, would the Tigers trade Martinez to a contender to get some young chips in return?

It’s time for the Tigers to think about what they’ll do post-VMart.

Who will be the closer?

Here’s where the Tigers are with 2016 closer Frankie Rodriguez: they can bring him back in 2017 for $8 million or buy out his contract and let him go for $2 million. They’ll probably make that decision before the winter meetings.

By the numbers, Rodriguez was effective in his first season as a Tiger, saving 44 games, second in the league. No active pitcher in baseball tops Rodriguez’s 430 career saves and he’s been a good presence in the bullpen. But the numbers indicate that Frankie is becoming much more hittable. In 2016 his K rate was 8.0, the lowest of his career and almost 2 K’s per nine less than the previous season. And the reason for that decrease is telling: Rodriguez can’t throw his fastball past big league hitters at all any more, and he also has difficulty locating his offspeed pitches. Big league hitters are laying off his breaking pitch in hopes of forcing KRod to have to give in with a fastball up and over the plate. And when Rodriguez has to throw a straight pitch over the plate, hitters crush him. Does that sound familiar? That’s what Jose Valverde was like the last few seasons he was closing games in a Detroit uniform.

To his credit, KRod is smart and he can still have a great slider, so on certain days he is effective. But he’ll be 35 in 2016 and he’s entering his 17th major league season. At $8 million he’s pretty affordable, and the Detroit front office won’t want to make the hard decision to let him go, so I suspect KRod will be back. But he’ll only be keeping the closer job warm until Bruce Rondon or prospect Joe Jimenez takes over.

Will the Tigers acquire left-handed power to balance the lineup?

What do Ian Kinsler, Cameron Maybin, Miguel Cabrera, JD Martinez, Justin Upton, Nick Castellanos, James McCann, and Jose Iglesias have in common? They are all right-handed hitters. If Detorit brings Maybin back, the eight of them would probably be slated to get most of the playing time at their positions.

The Detroit lineup needs balance. Maybe Al Avila was watching his team play in a mirror, because the Detroit GM didn’t seem to realize this in 2016. He never went out and acquired a good left-handed bat to even things out, not even for his bench. Even his answer as insurance at third (Casey McGehee, whom he ended up needing) was right-handed. Things have to change in 2017, right? You’d think so.

But where do the Tigers insert a left-handed bat? Do they trade the well-regarded Iglesias or soon-to-be free agent JD Martinez to get a lefty swinger? Cabrera, Kinsler, Castellanos, Upton, and McCann don’t appear to be going anywhere, so that only leaves a few lineup spots for a left-handed bat to join switch-hitter Victor Martinez.

The most likely answer is to get a left-handed bat for center field, which we’ll look at in the next section. But it’ll be interesting to see if Avila has the courage to break up the lineup somewhere by trading a regular for a left-handed bat or two.

What’s the answer in center field?

As we just discussed, the Tigers need some lefthanded punch in their lineup. There are a few options in the free agent market that won’t break the bank this offseason. My favorite option is Dexter Fowler, a switch-hitting center fielder who spent the last two years with the Cubs. Fowler has a career 770 OPS from the left side and 835 from the right. He’s quick like Maybin (averages 19 steals a season) but has more pop at the plate and he’s more consistent. He’s coming off one of his best season, having hit 13 homers and stole 13 bases. Fowler also does something that not many players in the Tiger lineup do: he takes pitches and draws walks. In 2016 he walked 79 times in 125 games. That’s almost as many free passes as Maybin and Upton took combined. Fowler also has a good defensive reputation and would be comfortable roaming the center pasture at Comerica Park.

If Al Avila doesn’t want to pursue another good free agent outfielder this offseason like Fowler, he could look to bring back low-cost former Tigers like Rajai Davis or Austin Jackson, both of whom are free agents this winter. Davis probably just had the best season he’ll ever have, and he’ll be hard-pressed to come near it, while AJax is done like toast.

Another option is to look internally for options in center, at the likes of Anthony Gose, Tyler Collins, or Christin Stewart. Each of those three has things going against them however. Gose had a run-in with Lloyd McClendon at Triple-A last season, an incident that resulted in him being demoted. Collins took a step back in 2016 when his offensive numbers took a nosedive. He’s 26 years old and only played 134 major league games, so he could still figure it out, but this team can’t wait on an unproven youngster to start in center. For the same reason, Stewart (who will one day by Detroit’s starting center fielder) is not an option in 2017.

Detroit holds a $9 million option on Cameron Maybin, who had a fine season in his return to the Tigers, despite battling several injuries. While he was a spark plug in ’16 when he was in the lineup, that’s not likely to last: Maybin has nearly 800 major league games on his ledger and he’s not as good an offensive player as he showed in 2016. The Tigers would be wise to seek another center fielder, preferably one who hits from the left side. But Maybin would be nice to keep to have in the mix. He’s one of those players who’s more effective when he plays 110 games than when he plays 150.

Will the front office finally build a superior bullpen and bench?

How long have Tiger fans been begging for a good bullpen? Since Todd Jones was closing games? (Ah, how we miss The Rollercoaster). Isn’t it time the front office made a serious effort to get this right? During the Dombrowski Era, the team threw a lot of arms at the problem, but there were mostly bad results. Avila showed that he was willing to try to remedy the problem, getting KRod, Justin Wilson, and Mark Lowe in the offseason. Again there were mixed results.

Ironically, it may prove to be the long-dormant Detorit farm system that solves this issue. Rondon finally appears to be mature enough to be a valuable option in the pen, and his arm is very good. And “closer of the future” Joe Jimenez is quickly making his way through the Tiger system. But there’ll probably need to be a bridge to Jimenez, so expect Avila to add some more bullpen options in the offseason. But it’s the nature of the game now that you just never know what you’re going to get from a reliever from one season to the next or one week to the next, for that matter.

The bench has long been a problem in Detroit. Given the modern 12-man pitching staff that leaves teams with only four bench players. One of those spots is used up by a spare catcher, another is a fourth outfielder, and the other two are usually filled by utility guys who can play 3,4, or even 5 positions. Unfortunately, many of those latter types of players are mediocre at best, and the good ones are hard to find. Sadly, the Tigers have packed their bench with really bad ballplayers too often the last few seasons. Frequently, crucial games are decided by a bench/role player due to injury or matchups. Did we really need to have Don Kelly, Ramon Santiago, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Mike Aviles in some of those spots? The Tigers need to get the roster construction right for once. That starts by acquiring good bench players to support the several stars in their everyday lineup.

Avila will need to get a second catcher, as Salty will be a free agent. Hey Alex Avila is available! He is really, but please no.