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Richard Justice

Tigers one move from being favorite heading into '14

Tigers one move from being favorite heading into '14

Tigers one move from being favorite heading into '14

The Tigers might be one more bold move away from being baseball's best team in 2014, and who would bet again Dave Dombrowski making it? Here's guessing that trading Prince Fielder was the first of two deals the Tigers' general manager has in mind.

Let's check out three obvious possibilities ...

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Shin-Soo Choo? He'd be a perfect fit at the top of the order with all that firepower -- Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, etc. -- behind him.

Carlos Beltran? He would elevate the Tigers from good to scary good. How about Beltran hitting in the No. 2 hole between Hunter or Ian Kinsler and Cabrera. Yikes.

Curtis Granderson? Another nice fit. A left-handed bat. A defensive upgrade in the outfield. A winner.

Dombrowski is believed to have checked in on all three. If he lands any of them, the Tigers could enter Spring Training with the "Best Team in Baseball" designation. Wouldn't that be the perfect way for Brad Ausmus to start his managerial career?

In fact, it would. As Ausmus' predecessor, Jim Leyland, pointed out a few hundred times the last couple of Spring Trainings, expectations aren't a bad thing.

"[High expectations aren't bad, because they mean] you've got a pretty good club," Leyland said. "I've been on both sides of that. I'll take the expectations if [they mean] I've got a good club."

As Leyland also pointed out a time or two, it's a long ride from February to October, and stuff happens. Still, no team would be better positioned than the Tigers.

Is another splashy deal necessary? Probably not. Even if Dombrowski's only other move this offseason is to sign a closer, the Tigers would still be positioned to win the World Series in 2014.

With Bruce Rondon possibly penciled in for the seventh inning and Joaquin Benoit the eighth, the signing of a closer would transform a problem area into a strength.

If Dombrowski doesn't do anything else, the Tigers will be heavily favored to win the American League Central for a fourth straight time. But Dombrowski thinks big. He's also inclined to be aggressive. There's likely to be significant bidding for Choo, Beltran and Granderson, but the Tigers long ago proved they're not afraid to spend more if it means improving the club.

The Tigers are built to win now. They've spent that way, too. So despite winning three straight division championships, they're going to see themselves as having come up short until they win the World Series at least once during this window of opportunity.

What we'll never know is how far the Tigers could have gone in 2013 if they'd been healthy. Rondon had finally become the guy Dombrowski hoped he'd be when he got hurt, while Cabrera was a shadow of the player he'd been for most of the season by the time the playoffs began. That he refused to come out of the lineup, that he refused to even discuss his injuries, says plenty about him. But the Tigers still ended up watching the Red Sox win the championship they thought might have been their own.

As long as Detroit has Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer at the top of its rotation and Cabrera in the middle of its lineup, the Tigers have a chance to win. But Dombrowski won't be able to hold everything together forever.

Scherzer is a year away from free agency, and Cabrera has played an average of 157 games the last 10 seasons. Even though he's only 30, his production will begin to decline at some point -- probably sooner rather than later.

That's why there seems to be a sense of urgency about this offseason. In trading Fielder to the Rangers for Kinsler, Dombrowski sent a strong, clear message that he was unwilling to look at the same basic group of players again.

One deal changed the Tigers at three positions: Cabrera moves from third to first, Kinsler takes over at second and top prospect Nick Castellanos takes over at third.

Now, left field is the only area in which the Tigers aren't set. Having shed some of Fielder's money, Dombrowski seems to be toying with the idea of elevating his team yet again.

Every team pursuing those three free-agent outfielders knows that if the Tigers are serious about landing one of them, Dombrowski usually gets what he wants. If you're a fan of the Tigers, these are the good times.

You've got an owner, Mike Ilitch, willing to spend and a general manager who has a long track record of constructing winners. Maybe the Tigers need just one more push to get over the top. If so, there's a terrific chance Dombrowski will make it.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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