Going into this offseason the Detroit Tigers have a strong core, a lot of payroll obligations and a choice of three distinct paths. Which path the Tigers take will be determined entirely by owner Mike Ilitch’s wallet and his desire to win a championship in the short window he has left on this earth. We Tigers fans have known for a while that this Tiger renaissance is all due to Ilitch’s willingness to swim in red ink – and the situation has not yet changed.
Path 1: Scrape By. The Tigers play in a weak division. Time and again we have seen that just barely making the playoffs is fundamentally all it takes for a real shot at a championship. Remember those 116-win Mariners? Remember the 2006 Cardinals? They have a number of studs under contract for a few more years, but they also have a number of arbitration-eligibles with tremendous value on the trade market. The Tigers could opt to cut payroll and get younger while still remaining in the hunt for the top spot in the AL Central (like they did prior to the 2010 season). We would be looking at the Tigers potentially trading away either Max Scherzer or Doug Fister or both (both of which are worth their weight in gold) and letting Anibal Sanchez and Octavio Dotel go. They could also deal Austin Jackson or Alex Avila for AAA replacements of similar talent. Fans dread this sort of thing – but as the A’s showed this season, it is far from a death knell.
Path 2: Stand Pat. The Tigers could elect to hold onto all of their important pieces (aside from guys like Valverde and Young that are free agents unlikely to be pursued) and hope for – for example – a rebound from Brennan Boesch and success in the closer role from Joaquin Benoit or Octavio Dotel. This path could include a juicy offer to Anibal Sanchez, or not. They might even offer Young or Valverde a reduced role at reduced pay, or not. We would expect to see largely the same team as in 2012 and a relatively quiet offseason. Doing nothing is, of course, still enough to give the Tigers an excellent chance in 2013.
Path 3: Re-Load. You could also call this Double-Down. Mike Ilitch’s recent history (Granderson trade aside) has indicated a preference – all else equal – for this kind of a strategy. Really the only major move that the Tigers have made since the 2003 gutting of an inept team that didn’t fit path 3 (path 2 is defined by the lack of major moves) was that Granderson trade. So what happens if the Tigers double down? Basically anything. The kind of fascinating, fan-enthusiasm-boosting offseason that we have gotten so accustomed to. The Tigers are going to have a major vacancy at an outfield corner and at the top of the bullpen. There are top-of-the-line players that will be out there on the free agent and trade markets that could fill those holes. Will Ilitch drool over the possibility of Josh Hamilton in right field? Or Chris Perez in the 9th inning? We shall see.
Which will Ilitch and the Tigers organization choose?