Labor Day ushers in September with the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals separated by only a half-game atop the American League Central division. Six games between the two will likely decide which of them finishes in first place.
Whether Detroit wins a fourth straight division crown or not, this team will look much, much different next season as key players are likely to leave for greener pastures.
Two big reasons the Tigers are in the position they’re in — Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez — are free agents in the offseason. Veteran Torii Hunter will also be a free agent, as will Joba Chamberlain. Detroit’s 2015 team photo will have many new faces. Let’s look at the players who are either free agents after this season or likely to be moved.
Last March following Scherzer’s Cy Young season, the Tigers offered him a $144 million deal which he rejected. Scherzer will be the most sought after free agent pitcher in the offseason. He currently leads the AL with 15 wins and has pitched very well all year. The Yankees, who have long been a fan of Scherzer’s, will likely be active in their pursuit of the right-hander. The chances of him resigning with Detroit are almost nil, his agent Scott Boras always gets a huge payday for his clients and he’ll be able to cash in for much more from someone else. The Tigers have tons of cash tied up in contracts for Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, and they also owe nearly $80 million to Ian Kinsler and Anibal Sanchez over the next three or four years. Scherzer turned 30 this summer and he’s almost certainly had his best seasons. Fans will hate to see his magic arm and freaky eyes go, but Detroit is already overpaying for the declining years of Verlander and Cabrera, they shouldn’t do the same with Mad Max.
Verlander, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Anibal Sanchez will form the front four of the ’15 rotation, but who would the Tigers slot in as a fifth starter? Well, this is a team built to win now, but it’s also a team aging in key spots. The Tigers could open the 5th spot to a competition among farm hands Robbie Ray, Kyle Lobstein, Buck Farmer, or Drew VerHagen. Or Dombrowski could use the money “saved” from letting Scherzer and/or Martinez go and lure a free agent starter to Detroit. Brandon McCarthy is an interesting option, or maybe Jason Hammel, Justin Masterson, or even Francisco Liriano. As we saw this season, you can never have too many quality starting pitchers.
Martinez could win the batting title and at age 35 he’s having his most productive season. But given several factors, the Tigers will probably not pursue him aggressively. Cabrera is going to have to transition into the DH role eventually (maybe much sooner than anticipated) which would leave VMart without a place to swing his silver bat. Sadly, there are rumors that both the White Sox and Indians are interested in Martinez, which would put him in the same division. If the veteran were to offer Mr. Ilitch a discount, maybe the Tigers would resign him, but this is his last big free agent go-around so expect the DH to try to cash in.
Since he first put on the Old English D, Chamberlain has fit in very well with this team. He’s been one of the only bright spots in the bullpen and he’s got a live arm. He inked a $2.5 million deal to come to Motown and after his fine season he’ll garner more, but I expect the Tigers will make him an attractive offer, probably before the winter meetings. He’ll want at least two years and he should get it.
His next season will be his 19th in the big leagues and Torii will turn 40 in July. He’s been an affordable and serviceable player for the Tigers and predictably he’s been a solid presence in the clubhouse and a fan favorite. The problem is that Hunter is no longer a very good outfielder, his range is diminishing and his arm is weak. Having dealt Austin Jackson to get David Price, the Tigers now have a Grand Canyon sized hole in center field and no young players in their organization to fill it. They could go after Denard Span or a lesser free agent center fielder like Emilio Bonafacio or Colby Rasmus, but expect Dombrowski to get outside help for his bare outfield. Hunter will almost certainly be the odd man out, unless he takes a one year deal to stick around, some of which may depend on whether the Tigers win a title or if Hunter wants to try to win one again in the Motor City.
Whenever he throws his last pitch of the 2014 season that’ll be Coke’s final toss as a Detroit Tiger. Let’s hope it’s the final out of the World Series (we can dream, can’t we?). Coke has been a polarizing figure in Detroit since he came over in the three-team deal that also made Scherzer a Tiger. The southpaw has sort of been the Brandon Inge of the bullpen. But Coke has very few fans now, even in the front office. Lefties who can throw 94-96 MPH will always find jobs, but Coke’s next gig will be elsewhere.
Joakim Soria and other Bullpen Disappointments
Detroit has an option on Soria or they can let him enter the free agent market. He barely pitched at all after coming over from the Rangers before the trade deadline, one of the many swings-and-misses by Dombrowski in his effort to bolster the weakest part of this club. He’s a cheap option and he has a fine track record, so expect the Tigers to keep Soria. Jim Johnson is a free agent and he’ll be jettisoned, as will Joel Hanrahan and a few other plugin pieces that never panned out.
Detroit’s bullpen in 2015 has to improve: Joe Nathan, Chamberlain, Al Albuerquerque, Blaine Hardy, and Soria will be back. Bruce Rondon will be coming back from Tommy John surgery and if he makes a recovery and can top 100 MPH again, the pen will be much better. That would leave one last spot for a left-hander, which could be a kid from the farm system or maybe former Tiger Andrew Miller, who hits the free agent market.
Donnie Baseball and the Detroit Bench
Don Kelly, Andy Dirks, Andrew Romine, and Bryan Holaday are all arbitration eligible this offseason, meaning the Tigers can make an offer and let an arbitrator decide on a contract for the ’15 campaign. Dirks will be back to help settle the outfield situation, but Holaday is a goner. Catching prospect James McCann is ready to advance to the big leagues and we’ll get to see him in action this September. But it’s very possible that the Don Kelly era will soon be over in Detroit. The only reason Donnie Baseball has a job is because the trend in MLB is to carry a seven-man bullpen which leaves few spots on the bench. Thus, versatile defensive players like Kelly are needed. But Detroit will have a catcher (McCann), infielder Eugenio Suarez (Jose Iglesias will be back to start at short in 2015), and an extra outfielder on their bench (probably right fielder Steven Moya), leaving just one open spot. It’s likely that Dombrowski will choose to go young on his bench to give the team a chance to transition.