September 27, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Tigers expect big moves in critical offseason

Johnny Damon hits an eighth-inning single Sunday in the final home game of the 2010 season. Damon might end his Tiger career after one year. (Robin Buckson/The Detroit News)

Detroit

The gruff old manager succumbed briefly. Another home season was over and another big crowd had stood and cheered the final pitch. It was a nice moment, a chance to consider what the Tigers could have done, and what they need to do.

Jim Leyland's eyes welled and his voice broke as he said, "It's a special place," and there's no doubt, Detroit's baseball fans again displayed unwavering faith. Now it's up to the Tigers and GM Dave Dombrowski, who faces a hugely crucial off-season, to show why the team deserves so much support.

Leyland's post-game sentimentality was especially poignant because he knows changes are coming, and familiar names will be leaving. It has to happen, because right now, the Tigers have half a good team, not nearly good enough to keep up with the Twins.

They swept Minnesota with a 5-1 victory, but the Twins are getting ready for the playoffs, while the Tigers are trying to finish above .500, now 80-75. Here's the real puzzler: The Tigers were excellent at Comerica Park (52-29) and awful on the road (28-47).

Not acceptable and not fully explainable, not to the nearly 2.5 million fans who came to the ballpark in a tough economy, or the 32,021 paid attendance on a football Sunday. Dombrowski and his staff have to fix it.

"I don't really know what the team will look like next year at all," Leyland said. "You probably could say you got Miguel Cabrera and Austin Jackson."

As far as everyday guarantees, that's about it. The Tigers do have the makings of a fine starting rotation, with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer at the top. Rick Porcello also should be better.

Cabrera is having an MVP season, but obviously, they need more hitters. They definitely need more bullpen guys and more gamers, veterans who don't get shaken by big moments.

There's no room for sentimentality, and the Tigers showed it last off-season when they dealt Curtis Granderson for Jackson, which worked out nicely. Now, Johnny Damon surely will be let go. So will catcher Gerald Laird.

Free-agent pitcher Jeremy Bonderman might be gone, although he could be kept over Armando Galarraga (sorry, no near-perfect sentimentality). Brandon Inge could stay for the right price.

"I don't want to go anywhere, but if it was to happen, I'd have no hard feelings," Inge said. "In the ninth inning, I caught myself looking around the stadium, everyone's on their feet, and I was like, man, this is awesome. I love it here."

We knew this was a season of transition, and the Tigers had more at-bats by rookies than any team in baseball. But now, about $70 million could drop off Mike Ilitch's payroll, and even if the owner doesn't want to spend it all, you know he'll spend some. And Dombrowski had better spend wisely.

It's not certain who will be back, and that's the way it works when a team's production doesn't match its payroll. There were reasons, obviously, including the injuries to Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen and Inge, which gutted the lineup.

That's why they need to retain Ordonez. No, they shouldn't pick up his $15 million option, but they should try to re-sign him, even at 36 coming off a broken ankle. Cabrera might win the MVP despite closing in on an American League-record for intentional walks. Jhonny Peralta hit decently behind him, and probably won a spot.

But Ordonez fit so well ahead of Cabrera, the Tigers can't just let him go with his .312 career batting average.

"I talk to him all the time, and Magglio wants to come back," Cabrera said. "He can't control that, I can't control that. We'll see."

Cabrera doesn't make personnel decisions, but the big fella has earned back a ton of power with a career-high 38 home runs and 126 RBIs. There were lively chants of "MVP!" Sunday, and Cabrera is the best all-around hitter in the American League. Some will vote for Texas' Josh Hamilton, even though he's been injured, because the Rangers are in the playoffs.

But as pitchers kept avoiding Cabrera and frustrations mounted, he was phenomenal. He desperately needs help, and never whined about it. He held up his end of the deal, and the Tigers have to hold up theirs.

Everyone will crave Rays free-agent outfielder Carl Crawford and Red Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre, and either would make sense for the Tigers. They have to do something aggressive, and I think Ilitch knows it. For all their youth this season, what did the Tigers really uncover? They found Jackson and, maybe, Brennan Boesch. Everything else is uncertain -- next year's shortstop, third baseman, second baseman and catcher.

"It does appear we have a few dollars to spend, but it's not the most gorgeous free-agent list," Leyland said. "It's a matter of picking the right guys, and it may not be some big household names. I don't think we're that far away. We have a pretty good ballclub."

Since the World Series appearance in 2006, pretty good hasn't been good enough. The fans have been remarkably loyal and patient. The Tigers have to find a way to reward them with more than souvenir shirts and occasional contention.

Bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">Bob.wojnowski@detnews.com