Looking Ahead to the Offseason

channum
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This might seem like a strange thing to be thinking about…  the Tigers are headed to the playoffs, just off of their longest winning streak in something like 70 years, dueling Texas in the race for all-important ALDS home field advantage…  and I start wondering about who the Tigers might or might not sign (or deal for, but that will be the subject of lots of future posts) in the offseason.

There are some real stars that could be on the market this offseason, starting with Prince Fielder (who says he almost certainly won’t be staying with the Brewers).  SS Jose Reyes should be available, as will 3B Aramis Ramirez and 1B Albert Pujols (though they might very well wind up staying with their present clubs).  Unfortunately, most of these guys wouldn’t actually fill needs on the Tigers squad.

In fact, the Tigers could wind up as total non-factors in this years free agent market despite the money coming off the books from Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen.  The team has potential voids at second, third and closer – but also options.  I’ll leave OF aside as it would shock me, personally, if the Tigers didn’t resign Delmon Young and go with an outfield of Boesch, Jackson, Young and some combination of Raburn and Dirks.  That isn’t to say that I wouldn’t rather see them go after someone else, but I really, really don’t think it’s a possibility.  It is entirely possible that the team will wind up resigning Ramon Santiago, Wilson Betemit and Jose Valverde while continuing to pay Brandon Inge and Ryan Raburn and moving forward with exactly the roster they’ve got right now.  Or not.  We don’t know.  And that’s what makes it interesting.

The MLB has had an unpleasant loophole in the free agent rules for a while now that allows a team to profit from allowing it’s own Type-A (or B) free agents to leave and signing those of another team.  The Tigers have been loth to abuse this loophole thus far (or perhaps just never found the right circumstance) but it offers the most compelling reason for the team to look outside the Big Potato for the 2012 closer.  This is something other bloggers have mentioned already, I know I’m breaking no new ground here, but there are should be plenty of other options on the market in relief this fall.  I wouldn’t mind, in effect, trading Valverde to the Red Sox for Jonathan Papelbon or to the Phillies for Ryan Madson if it meant that both teams got a free sandwich pick.  On the other hand, that kind of strategy could easily blow up in the Tigers faces if they were outbid on other top tier closers and wound up settling for a tier 3 guy.  We should bear in mind that while Papa Grande is a pretty good relief pitcher, he isn’t the cream either.

At third base, the Tigers will be stuck paying Brandon Inge.  While that is tough, like paying Carlos Guillen this year undoubtedly was, it doesn’t really mean much for 2012.  Inge will probably still be around, but he was only an average player in his prime and this year he has looked decidedly past it.  If he’s going to play at all in 2012, and he might not, he’s going to need to be the weak side of a platoon partnership – just like he is right now.  I believe Wilson Betemit will also be a free agent this year… which poses some interesting possibilities.  Why?  Well, with the way he’s been hitting (and the amount he’s been playing) for the Tigers this summer Betemit is now barely projecting as a type B free agent.  So… let him go, get a free sandwich pick.  Again this loophole is a bad thing for baseball, but if the Red Sox can abuse it for profit so should we.  As it is, it’s a pretty good reason to let him slide.  Now the Tigers could let him go and elect to use Danny Worth (who has been seeing a fair amount of play at the hot corner) as an insurance policy for Inge, but Worth hits right-handed too and hasn’t done anything to earn more than a shot to make the team out of spring training.

IF the Tigers opt to go in another direction over the Betemit/Inge platoon the best option is to sign Aramis Ramirez and his 314 career home runs away from the Cubs.  Unfortunately, rumor has it he’s not interested in leaving Chicago so it’s probably moot.  The Tigers would have been ‘smart’ to sign Ted Lilly instead of Brad Penny last offseason, but of course it was not up to them.  Another big-money option would be to sign Jose Reyes to play short and move Peralta to third.   However, that would undoubtedly be a very expensive choice and Reyes is injury prone and has a game that might not work if he loses a step with age.  Peralta also couldn’t platoon with Inge (who has to be paid anyway) and has been an amazingly effective shortstop both in the field and at the plate – might not be a good idea to mess with a good thing.  After that the options are a little thin:  Eric Chavez, who has been decent this year as a bench player in New York, swings from the left side.  Edwin Encarnacion may not get his option picked up, and he can mash – though from the right side.  His glove, unfortunately, is every bit as bad as Betemit’s and he wouldn’t be a good choice for a platoon.   The rest of the list is guys that are clearly over the hill, some of which have been released already.  If it were up to me, I’d sign Chavez to a two year deal to split time with Inge while Castellanos works his way through AA and AAA.  But that’s just to get the pick, from a performance standpoint I see no reason to go anywhere but Betemit since Reyes and Ramirez are likely impossible to get and would cost far more than they would be worth.

At second base, we’re stuck with a Ryan Raburn under contract and a position no one thinks he’ll ever acceptably field.  That’s not so bad, though.  The contract isn’t too rich and Raburn can definitely play positions other than second base.  Ramon Santiago will be a free agent again, though no matter what happens over the final two weeks of the season he will never qualify for type B status – so there is no incentive to sign another reserve there.  If the Tigers elect to resign Santiago instead of using younger players in those reserve roles OR decide to give the full time starting job at second to Ramon, then the Tigers will go to battle in 2012 looking very much like they look right now.  There is also the chance that the Tigers could leave the position open for a spring training battle between Raburn, Danny Worth and Will Rhymes (and potentially Santiago).

But… second base offers a lot of potential outside solutions for a team that wants to do better than Rhymes, Worth, Raburn and Santiago.  For starters there is my preferred target:  former D’Back and current Blue Jay Kelly Johnson – who at this point projects as barely a type-B.  That is a big distinction – we’re talking about either having a first round pick or having none.  Johnson’s left-handed bat, .782 career OPS and plus glove would put the sour taste of spoiled Sizemore out of our mouths.  It seems very unlikely that options would be declined on either Brandon Phillips or Robinson Cano, but both would clearly present big upgrades over in-house options.  Given how he has hit since his trade to Arizona, it seems likely that Aaron Hill will get his $ 8 million option picked up as well.  That still leaves us with a few more interesting type-B’s in Mark Ellis, Omar Infante and Jamey Carroll.  All three of them are better at the plate that Ramon Santiago and better in the field than Ryan Raburn but would likely only represent slight upgrades over in-house options overall – that is to say, adding 1 win or less.

I won’t be dissatisfied if the Tigers enter camp with exactly the same roster that they have right now, by any means.  Still, if I could cherry pick free agents I’d go with Kelly Johnson, Ryan Madson and Eric Chavez for 2012.  How about you?

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