Detroit was a defeated team as its sat in a quiet clubhouse after an anticlimactic 15-5 loss in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday, but the Tigers were also an optimistic one. They can look at the AL Central and feel good about their chances to get back to the playoffs.
After watching their World Series hopes fall short, the Tigers also got a good look at what they need to get to the Fall Classic.
"This is what you work for," Victor Martinez said, "and like I said before, this kind of opportunity doesn't come to you very often. But in the end, we really feel good about this team, that pretty much everybody's coming back next year.
"Everybody knows now what it takes to get to this stage. Now you just get a little bit of rest and start getting ready for next season."
The good news for the Tigers is that most of the core that got them this far will remain intact. Other than free agents Ramon Santiago, Brad Penny, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen and Wilson Betemit, everyone else on the roster is under team control. Detroit officially has to make a decision on Jose Valverde's $9 million contract option for next season, but that could be the easiest decision the Tigers will make this winter.
They'll have Brennan Boesch healthy following thumb surgery, and their various walking wounded from this postseason -- Martinez, Alex Avila and Delmon Young foremost -- should be back at full strength. Both Avila and team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Saturday night that while the All-Star catcher will have an MRI exam on both knees, he isn't expected to require surgery. Martinez, too, sounded optimistic he'll only need rest to be back at full strength for next year.
Their core group is intact. This offseason will be about the complementary pieces.
Their group of trusted relievers was one veteran right-hander short all postseason, and it arguably cost them two 11th-inning losses in the ALCS. Part of that was the result of injury, from Joel Zumaya's continued elbow problems that shelved him all season to the concussion and hip issues that knocked Al Alburquerque out for most of August and September.
"Alburquerque was very important," Dombrowski said. "I mean, when you look at [Alexi] Ogando for them, that's how Alburquerque was for us."
Ogando was a find out of the Rangers' farm system. The Tigers don't have an obvious fit for that, not with top pitching prospect Jacob Turner likely joining the rotation sometime in 2012. They could hope for health on that end, or they could make one more addition for a seventh-inning reliever.
Detroit's struggles to get runners on base, particularly with the ups and downs of Austin Jackson, hindered an offense that slugged 13 home runs in the ALCS, but 11 solo shots. Jackson had some of the deepest sophomore struggles and came out stronger, but he'll have to reach base more often for the Tigers to reach their full potential at the plate.
They went through a revolving door at second base that ended with Santiago earning the bulk of the time down the stretch. Most likely, the Tigers will try to find a full-time player for that spot. Third base is another question, centering on the decision whether Brandon Inge's postseason performance in a limited role will earn him first crack at reclaiming the job next year.
The Tigers will likely try to upgrade at either second or third with another hitter, and maybe even both if they can find the financial fit within a payroll already headed up with salary raises and arbitration cases. The prize of the positional market, leadoff weapon Jose Reyes, plays shortstop, which could raise speculation that All-Star shortstop Jhonny Peralta could shift back to third.
Detroit has already debated offseason decisions, and it'll talk it over some more. For arguably the first time since Dombrowski took over 10 years ago, though, he has the base of young talent he wants to build around -- even better than what he had coming out of the Tigers' 2006 run to the World Series.
"We have a real good young core group of young players that are in their prime," Dombrowski said. "If [we] stay healthy next year, I think we'll have a good club. We'll do some fine-tuning, I'm sure, to try to get better. You're not satisfied by any means, but I do think we're in a position where you don't have to go out and make a bunch of huge moves. Your foundation is there."