The Tigers have won four consecutive division titles behind a core that included Max Scherzer in the rotation and Victor Martinez in the heart of the lineup. They've taken back-to-back postseason runs with Torii Hunter in the corner of the outfield and the heart of the clubhouse.
All of them are free agents. So, too, is setup man Joba Chamberlain and left-hander Phil Coke. Newly-acquired reliever Joakim Soria could be, too, if the Tigers don't pick up his contract option for next season.
Detroit has dealt with changing faces and shifting plans in the past, never bigger than last year with the retirement of Jim Leyland and the trades of Prince Fielder
and Doug Fister
. This winter, however, could strike at the heart.
This is why runs like what the Tigers have done for four years -- really, what they've done since 2006, with only one losing season in nine years -- are so rare. Even for a team that has spent big to contend -- Detroit's payroll neared $170 million after Trade Deadline trades for Soria and David Price -- this could be a bit much.
As some of the Tigers began to pack up their gear, the sense was impossible to avoid, that they could have a different group in there when they open their 2015 season against the Twins on April 6.
"It can be difficult at times to see friends come and go," said catcher Alex Avila, who enters a contract year next season. "That's part of the game, and it's the reality of the situation. You have to be able to deal with it on a yearly basis and sometimes during the year.
"We'll find out how it'll unfold this offseason and figure from there. That's always the case every single year. It [stinks] sometimes, but that's the reality."
Martinez and Scherzer could end up as the top hitter and pitcher on the free-agent market, even with Martinez's age and his status as a regular designated hitter and occasional first baseman. In a season where impact offense was hard to find, evidenced by the scarcity of deals for hitters at the July Trade Deadline, Martinez hits the market coming off the best season of his career.
Martinez hit .335 with a league-best .974 OPS, 32 homers and 103 RBIs. He has hit well enough to open the real possibility of a long-term contract with his 36th birthday coming in December.
"I wasn't really thinking about that, you know," Martinez said. "My teammates and myself have a lot of work to do. Unfortunately, we couldn't get it done. Now we'll see what happens. It's time to go home, spend time with the kids and see what happens."
The Tigers are among those teams who know about offense being hard to find. They're expected to make a major push to try to keep Martinez.
Asked if he wants to return to Detroit, Martinez said, "They know. They know. So we'll see what happens."
Scherzer's contract has been an off-and-on story since last offseason. It became a distraction in Spring Training when the Tigers announced he had declined a long-term contract offer, later reported to be six years for $144 million. Talks broke off then, but the two sides agreed to revisit his situation at season's end.
Here it is, sooner than expected.
"It's hard to even think about that right now when you have a loss like this," Scherzer said. "Whenever you get bounced out of the playoffs and the postseason, it always stings. I'm sure I'll address that as the offseason progresses, but I do hope I'm back. I love this clubhouse, love everybody in here, been to battle with these guys for five years. It would mean a lot to me."
Scherzer hits the open market at the head of a trio of front-line starters, including Boston's Jon Lester and Kansas City's James Shields. With 39 wins, 434 2/3 innings, 492 strikeouts and 12.7 Wins Above Replacement over the last two years, and his 31st birthday not until next July, Scherzer and agent Scott Boras have every reason to believe he'd be at the front of the group.
Chamberlain, signed last December on what amounted to a one-year, $3 million flyer, had an outstanding bounceback season with a bad ending, struggling down the stretch after an early pace that would've set a career high in appearances. He's interested in returning, but he might not have the choice if the Tigers opt for a bullpen makeover.
A bullpen overhaul could leave the Tigers in a tricky position with Soria, who has a $7 million club option for next season. If the Tigers declined the option, they will have traded two high-level prospects -- starter Jake Thompson and reliever Corey Knebel -- for 15 outings from Soria, including two shaky appearances in his first postseason.
Put all the situations together, add Coke, plus contract years looming for Price, Rick Porcello and others, and the situation could as big or bigger than last winter's massive transition.
They wanted to put it off until the offseason. They wanted the offseason to be later than this.