Omar Infante becomes a free agent after earning a $4 million salary in 2013. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Oakland, Calif. – Game 5 was a couple of hours away Thursday when two men who now work for the Tigers, Jim Leyland and Joaquin Benoit, arrived for an early press conference at O.co Coliseum.
The Tigers and A’s were each facing reality Thursday. The offseason, for one team anyway, was a few hours away. Leyland and Benoit are among those whose futures have yet to be determined, although nothing suggests Leyland won’t be back as manager.
If it were to begin Friday for the Tigers, which would be the case if they lost their division series playoff finale against the A’s, an intriguing list of decisions and possibilities lay ahead, primarily to be decided by front-office chief Dave Dombrowski.
What would he do about adding muscle to his bullpen in 2014? What might he decide about left field, which was a position in such flux in 2013 that Jhonny Peralta ended up playing there in critical playoff games.
Second base is a more fascinating question. Will the Tigers try to re-sign Omar Infante, who in a few days becomes a free agent, which they probably prefer to do – if they can get him to bite on a two-year deal.
Or, do they entrust second base to young Hernan Perez, whose legs and glove and probable growth as a hitter have convinced the Tigers that Perez will be just fine?
What about his pitching rotation? Drew Smyly is the left-hander a starting corps ideally should feature when good lineups are loaded with so many good left-handed hitters. But unless injuries crop up, which did not happen in 2013, Smyly would figure to stick in the bullpen, where he was invaluable in 2013.
Of course, the Tigers could trade a starter. They had tried for months last winter and spring to deal Rick Porcello in a bid to turn an extra starter into a whopping – maybe championship-clinching – transaction that might put them over the top.
But the market was soft. Porcello stayed. And a 24-year-old right-hander flourished, growing into the mature, steady starting pitcher the Tigers had always envisioned.
Another possibility looms. Max Scherzer will become a free agent at the end of next season. It has been suggested for some time now that the Tigers might be open to moving Scherzer rather than losing him in 12 months, with only a first-round draft pick in 2015 as compensation.
That could happen. A contending team might see Scherzer as the starting pitcher that could deliver a World Series. And that team might have the pieces Dombrowski would require if he were to trade perhaps the American League’s best right-handed starter.
But I’ll believe it when I see it.
What are the Tigers but one of those contending teams? No club more than the Tigers understands how vital Scherzer was to winning a division and lasting into Game 5 of the opening round.
The Tigers not only stand to have that same Cy Young Award-caliber pitcher in their rotation in 2014, they won’t mind that first-round draft pick as compensation once Scherzer and agent Scott Boras have signed on with another team, which is the expectation for an agent who prefers free agency over contract extensions.
It makes little sense the Tigers would part with Scherzer’s brand of commandeering skill when he had already made a difference in both of the Tigers’ first-round victories. It seems ludicrous that the Tigers would trade away a 21-game winner when he is under their control for another season in which a championship should be in the stars.
Other matters are less clear.
Benoit, who became the team’s bullpen life boat, said Thursday he would be happy to return and help groom Bruce Rondon as the team’s next closer. The Tigers no doubt loved hearing those words from Benoit. They will want him back, even if it means signing a 36-year-old pitcher to a two-year deal.
Second base is the most tantalizing of Detroit’s position conversations as 2014 begins to take shape.
Again, it is anticipated Infante will want to come back and that the Tigers will be willing to go two years on a new deal. If another team offers Infante a three-year package, Detroit might decide to draw a line. A three-year deal could make trading Infante more difficult as Perez, or even hot prospect Devon Travis, moves closer to Comerica Park.
But for now, the supposition is the Tigers will hang on.
That leaves left field. And that is where Dombrowski figures to make a deal. Nick Castellanos is scheduled to open the 2014 season there, but he is 21, and left field isn’t his position. Dombrowski and Leyland dealt with so many ongoing problems in left in 2013 they are almost sure to seek help there ahead of Opening Day, at least as early protection.
As for the manager? Expect him back. For another season, at least. He might surprise us with a farewell announcement. But nothing thus far indicates a guy who loves managing, and a team that’s happy with him, have decided to cancel the Leyland era in Detroit.