Tigers' Omar Infante is eligible for free agency, which might prompt the team to go with rookie Hernan Perez, who offers more speed at second. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Saturday night’s mix of emotions, reflected in Jim Leyland’s voice as sat at Fenway Park’s post-game interview dais, was one part disappointment, another part anger.
The disappointment was easily understood. A Tigers team loaded with historically good starting pitching had come within two victories of playing in a second consecutive World Series.
The anger was likely sparked by a more complicated set of resentments, beginning with Miguel Cabrera’s months-long groin/abdomen problems. Cabrera’s lower-body failure robbed the Tigers of baseball’s best hitter and the bat that might easily have made a difference in three one-run losses to a Red Sox team that will now play the Cardinals for baseball’s championship.
But there was another factor no doubt simmering deep with the Tigers manager.
His bullpen had been a problem on the first day of spring camp. It remained a problem throughout the season, and along with Cabrera’s pain-shackled swing, it was Detroit’s relief pitching that helped cancel what had been a glorious chance for owner Mike Ilitch’s team.
“Normally, if you pitch the way we pitched in this series, you would probably think that you had won,” Leyland said, his point more than clear.
Moments later, with words that framed Boston’s edge and Detroit’s greatest roster deficiency, he said: “I thought their starters were good. I thought their bullpen was great.“
Leyland had seen trouble coming during spring camp. He had no ninth-inning closer. Rondon, who was front-office chief Dave Dombrowski’s choice to become closer, showed during the Grapefruit League season that he was not yet ready for the ninth inning’s stresses.
A month later, Octavio Dotel, who was indispensable as a late-innings option, went down with elbow problems that knocked him out for the season. Rondon, who could well have delivered an ALCS banner had he and his 103-mph fastball been around for an eighth-inning collapse in Game 2, missed almost all of the final seven weeks with a mysteriously inflamed right elbow.
In the left-handed stable, Phil Coke was in the process of enduring a year loaded with bad performances and occasional ailments. The combination, which included Brayan Villarreal’s sudden problems with the strike zone that later led to him being traded, left the Tigers bullpen vulnerable against playoff-grade teams, even after Dombrowski made a July trade for a presumed right-handed power option in Jose Veras.
“It’s going to be a second-guesser’s delight,” Leyland said ahead of Opening Day, realizing fans would hold him accountable for bullpen options that were destined to be less than ideal.
The question now, as the Tigers begin building for 2014, is: Will the manager and Dombrowski agree the bullpen was an unwarranted issue Dombrowski helped invite when he put so much faith a year ago in Rondon?
If the resentment in Leyland’s voice Saturday spills over to their particular discussions, Leyland might not be back for 2014. Otherwise, there is every chance a man who loves managing the Tigers, and who outside some Tigers fan precincts, is viewed as one of the game’s very best skippers, will come back, probably for a final season ahead of turning 70 in December of next year.
Other questions and other players’ futures are to be sorted out this week as the Tigers begin organizational talks and forge a blueprint for 2014. They include:
Miguel Cabrera: He experienced a spiraling sequence of injuries that began with a bad back in mid-season, extended to his hip, and then to his abdominal wall and groin. Why the Tigers never shut him down for a reasonable time to fully heal has yet to be explained. It is possible, the Tigers have acknowledged, that Cabrera will require surgery when doctors as early as this week complete their exams.
But it was the loss of his singularly explosive bat that, even ahead of Detroit’s bullpen failings, destroyed the Tigers’ chances to break apart close games in which Cabrera is so often a decider.
Prince Fielder: His numbers were, by Fielder standards, mediocre even before he all but disappeared in the post-season. His and the Tigers’ issues, beyond the $168 million yet owed him through 2020, are multi-faceted.
A man’s already enormous heft added even more weight in 2013. It seemed not a coincidence that Fielder was being beaten badly by fastballs as his problems mounted. Those problems included off-the-field issues, heaviest of which is a divorce.
Tigers fans are already targeting him. And the divide will grow worse, perhaps untenably so, if Fielder does not hash out the physical and psychological handcuffs that are plainly at work. It will take a serious off-season effort to turn around a hitter who is only 29 and whose remaining paychecks almost match what the Ilitch family spent on Comerica Park.
Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, might need to team with the Tigers in realigning Fielder. With his gigantic contract, he is virtually impossible to trade. Fielder is the off-season’s No. 1 domestic issue.
Left field: The Tigers will agree during this week’s post-season critique that they need to get “more athletic.” In other words, faster. They also want a more potent bat at a position where offense is essential.
Loose plans call for 21-year-old Nick Castellanos to start in left field. Castellanos, though, is a natural third baseman. He is also three years out of high school. Dombrowski and Leyland – if Leyland stays – will be wary of going with a hitter so young at a position he has been playing for only 16 months.
Expect the Tigers to work hard toward a major off-season trade that will give them a faster, more seasoned player in left field. That could involved dealing Castellanos, the Tigers’ top prospect, who has no immediate chance at returning to third as long as Fielder and Cabrera are in place, with Victor Martinez destined to work another year as Tigers designated hitter.
Max Scherzer: It has been speculated, nationally, that the Tigers will trade their likely 2013 Cy Young Award winner. The belief is that Scherzer, who in 12 months becomes a free agent, will be traded by a team not interested in watching him march off to another team.
But it is borderline ludicrous the Tigers would make any such deal. Nor is it in the stars they would, or even could, extend him when his agent, Boras, prefers to take blue-chip free agents to the open market.
The Tigers will make a qualifying offer of $14 million (or more, depending upon next year’s determined number) to Scherzer following the 2014 season. They will receive as compensation a first-round draft pick (or a second, if a lower-half team signs him) when and if Scherzer signs with another team.
That another club would trade for one season of Scherzer, and pay the king’s ransom Dombrowski would demand, is all but unfathomable. The Tigers are built to win in 2014 and should be a better club than they were in 2013. But that’s only with Scherzer in their rotation. Any trade of a pitcher so vital to the Tigers is just shy of fantasy.
Omar Infante: The Tigers would appreciate re-signing Infante, who is about to file for free agency. But he will want a multi-year contract. And the Tigers might be tempted to go with rookie Hernan Perez, who has speed the team needs, and whose bat is likely to develop. It depends in great part on how the Tigers resolve left field. It is doubtful Dombrowski will want rookies in left and at second base when Jose Iglesias, 23, is now a fixture at shortstop following his rookie season.
Joaquin Benoit: Expect the Tigers to offer another of their free agents a two-year contract. Benoit was one of the team’s three most valuable players in 2013. He is 36, but the Tigers will want him as a back-end anchor and as a mentor to Rondon, who, if healthy, will move steadily into the closer’s role.
Alex Avila, Austin Jackson, Jhonny Peralta: Avila had a brutal 2013, mostly on the physical side, but at 26 the Tigers are right in thinking he is their everyday catcher and that a big 2014 is ahead.
Jackson will spend the off-season working on settling his batting stride and front foot. He, also, is 26 and should move closer to becoming an All-Star-grade player in 2014.
Peralta will not be back. A free agent, he will sign a multi-year deal with another club. The Tigers want a better, faster defender in left field. And with Iglesias at short, there is no room for Peralta, even with his steady bat.
Rick Porcello/Drew Smyly: The Tigers might trade a starting pitcher and move Smyly to the rotation as their much-needed left-handed option. But their rotation was so strong in 2013, and Smyly was of such value as a reliever, Dombrowski may decide to keep this group intact for one final season.
Tigers prospects will be part of this week’s conversations, as well.
James McCann is a year, probably, from becoming a serious consideration as an everyday catcher in Detroit. Daniel Fields could be a possible replacement for Torii Hunter after Hunter’s contract expires in 12 months. Eugenio Suarez, Harold Castro, Devon Travis, and Javier Betancourt, are middle infielders who offer trade potential as well as the Tigers’ first real middle-infield depth in decades.
One of the above might also be viewed as a potential third baseman, just in case a man named Castellanos – who has been long-regarded as Cabrera’s successor – moves elsewhere in the next few months as part of a whopping trade Dombrowski traditionally makes in his and his owner’s pursuit of a world championship Detroit hopes to see in 2014, the 30th anniversary of the Tigers’ last World Series triumph.