Tigers facing decisions to remain title contender

Scherzer, V-Mart are top pitcher, hitter in free agency

Tigers facing decisions to remain title contender

DETROIT -- The crisp fall winds feel a little chillier across Michigan with the Tigers' postseason run over sooner than expected. The miserable Midwestern winter is now on countdown. The Tigers, however, will spend the offseason trying to keep their window open.

Detroit entered this season privately admitting that last year was probably its best chance at the World Series title it's been chasing for close to a decade now. The challenge ahead for team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski and his talent evaluators is to make sure 2014 wasn't the club's last good chance.

It's going to be tricky. The Tigers are a team built to win now, but they're an aging team that started a youth infusion last year. One player noted what many have said in the past: It's a team that could use more athleticism.

At the same time, it's a team that's going to have a struggle to keep its core as close to intact as it can. There's a realistic possibility Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez end up being the top free-agent pitcher and hitter, respectively. They were the top pitcher and hitter for the Tigers this year.

Add in Torii Hunter, who drew praise from manager Brad Ausmus over the past month for his clubhouse presence and on-field ability, and the Tigers have some serious decisions ahead.

"We've been battling over the last few years [alongside] each other," Scherzer said after the Tigers' season-ending loss to the Orioles in Game 3 of the American League Division Series. "My teammates have been unbelievable. And for this season to come to an end the way it did, just always leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth. But hopefully there's a way we can continue to keep playing together."

And that's before another round of arbitration cases adds another bump to the payroll.

Put it together, the Tigers are trying to hold onto as much as they can at a time when the rest of the AL Central is improving with younger, cost-controlled talent. The days of looking head and shoulders above the division are over. The challenge is just starting.

Arbitration-eligible: RHP Al Alburquerque, C Alex Avila, OF Andy Dirks, IF/OF Don Kelly, OF J.D. Martinez, RHP Rick Porcello, RHP David Price

Free agents: RHP Joba Chamberlain, LHP Phil Coke, RHP Joel Hanrahan, OF Hunter, RHP Jim Johnson, 1B/DH Victor Martinez, RHP Scherzer, RHP

Rotation: There are worse fallback plans than a rotation fronted by David Price, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Porcello. Still, for a team that has built a division dynasty around a dominant rotation, losing Scherzer would leave a gaping hole with no clear answer within their system. While Kyle Lobstein was a September savior filling in for an injured Sanchez, counting on him to keep it up for a full season is another matter. If Scherzer leaves, Dombrowski could end up mitigating his losses by signing a free-agent starter on a smaller contract.

Bullpen: The Tigers rebuilt their 'pen last offseason and ended up with worse results than 2013, when instability at closer marked their season. Their 2014 frustrations suggest another overhaul is in order, but it might be more subtle. Closer Joe Nathan, who put up enough zeros late in the season that he was the least of Detroit's relief problems, is under contract for $10 million next year. The Tigers picked up their $7 million club option on Soria -- declining it would have meant the Tigers traded two top prospects for 15 games of Soria, including two shaky postseason appearances. Bruce Rondon, whose season-ending Tommy John surgery played a big factor in Detroit's bullpen struggles, is on track to be ready in Spring Training. The best opportunity for change is in lefty relief, where Andrew Miller -- the shutdown southpaw who came back to haunt the Tigers in October for not acquiring him in July -- is up for free agency.

Catcher: Contractually, the Tigers have one more season of Avila before he's up for free agency, backup Bryan Holaday under control, and well-regarded prospect James McCann on the cusp of the big leagues. That's the setup for not just a solid lefty-righty platoon, but a veteran-rookie mentoring between Avila and McCann. However, Avila's three concussions this year present not just long-term questions, but immediate issues. Avila intends to keep playing, but the Tigers have to be prepared to lose him for stretches, if not longer, if he continues to take foul tips off his mask and helmet.

First base: Though Miguel Cabrera's drop in power raised concerns about age, his second-half resurgence sparked optimism that he could have a strong year with a full offseason under his normal workout routine -- something he didn't have last winter while recovering from core muscle surgery, and was supposed to have this winter despite a bone spur in his right ankle. However, the surgery to remove the spur was more complicated than expected. He also had a procedure to repair a stress fracture in the navicular bone near the top of his right foot, an injury that hadn't been known before. Cabrera will be re-evaluated in about three months -- or a few weeks before Spring Training. He's expected to avoid weight-bearing activities on the foot until then, which greatly limits his offseason workouts.

Second base: The fact that the Tigers experimented with high-rising second-base prospect Devon Travis in center field in August at Double-A Erie before he required core muscle surgery spoke wonders about Ian Kinsler's future. At age 32, Kinsler led all AL second basemen in Defensive Runs Saved, ranked second in Ultimate Zone Rating, and led all AL players at all positions in total plays. For someone who seemed headed for a position change with Texas before his trade to Detroit last fall, it was redemption. Those numbers might not be sustainable, depending in no small part on the pitching staff in front of him, but he's the defensive cornerstone of the Tigers' infield at this point.

Shortstop: Jose Iglesias' stress fractures in his shins left a crushing void in the infield last year. His healthy return would be just as big of a boost. The Tigers say he's on track to be at full speed for Spring Training, but with such an unusual injury, it's difficult to assume a return to normal. That makes it difficult for Detroit to consider trading rookie Eugenio Suarez, who made highlight plays during his on-the-job training but suffered some lapses on routine grounders. Still, if Iglesias is healthy, this is his job to lose.

Third base: The offensive numbers were encouraging for Nick Castellanos in his rookie season. The defensive metrics, however, were sub-par -- league-worst, to be exact -- between too little range and too many mistakes on throws. The Tigers believe a full offseason to focus on the hot corner, plus an inventory of knowledge on hitters tendencies, should help improve the numbers.

Outfield: If the Tigers are going to make upgrades in their lineup, this is the most likely area. While J.D. Martinez has gone from Minor-League signee to long-term fixture in left, the other two outfield spots are relatively up in the air. Rajai Davis played in 134 games, nine shy of his career high, and more than the Tigers planned on using him. They could use him in center or right, but will likely mix him in with other talent, perhaps a young center fielder if they can find one on the trade market. The one spot where Detroit could upgrade from within is in right field, where slugging prospect Steven Moya could earn a chance to bypass Triple-A Toledo after batting .276 this season for Double-A Erie with 33 doubles, 35 home runs, 105 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. Hunter could still play into the mix here on a short-term deal.

Designated hitter: The Tigers are expected to make a major push to keep Victor Martinez, even if it takes a three-year deal. However, this is an area where Detroit has to strike a balance between winning now and worrying about the long-term. If injuries continue to hamper Cabrera, then the DH spot will eventually have to be an option as he creeps further into his 30s. If the Tigers lose Martinez, they could fill the spot with Hunter on a short-term deal or look at other free agents. They've seen enough of Nelson Cruz to know he can hit at Comerica Park, and hit in October.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.