December 5, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

What's next for Tigers? It should be locking up Max Scherzer

Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer works in the first inning of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Detroit The Tigers are entrenched in title contention, and thats a good thing. Its also a daunting thing. Its why they can land one of the best closers, Joe Nathan, and immediately field more questions.

Such as: OK, whats next? Whos next? What, who and when?

There has to be something next, right? The Tigers have subtracted five key contributors and essentially added two bonafide major-leaguers Nathan and Ian Kinsler. Theyre younger and quicker, although not necessarily cheaper. Theyre better defensively. But you cant say theyre better overall, not yet, and its only four months until Opening Day!

Dave Dombrowski is aware of this, and after a wild start to the offseason, now he has to get creative. He says the Tigers dont expect to sign any of the big-name free-agents rumored to be heading their way. This can change with an aggressive owner like Mike Ilitch, but it sure sounds like its time to brake the Choo train, because left fielder Shin-Soo Choo is a big-name free-agent mentioned as a possible Tiger.

In fact, Id guess the Tigers next major signing will be their own Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, who has a year left. All these machinations have been partly for that purpose, and Dombrowski said the team is better positioned to do it. He traded the ultra-expensive Prince Fielder and No. 4 starter Doug Fister and didnt try to retain Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante or Joaquin Benoit.

With the arrivals of Nathan and Kinsler and other expected raises, the short-term money difference is minimal. But the long-term contractual freedom is maximized, and keeping Scherzer is absolutely the right priority. So now that weve cleared that up Whats next? Whos next?!

I cant say were better, but I can say were as good, Dombrowski said Wednesday. This club has a chance to win a championship. Now, can any club get better? Yes. But those perfect players that are great offensively, great defensively, run fast and sign cheaply I dont know where they all are.

Still work to do

This is the price of doing business at the highest level, and its not going down. The Tigers desperately want to keep their stars Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Scherzer without sacrificing too much at other positions. But with youngster Nick Castellanos penciled in at third, Andy Dirks in left and Drew Smyly taking Fisters spot, theyre sacrificing knowns for unknowns.

Signing the 39-year-old Nathan was the easy part. He wanted to come here and came at a reasonable price.

Dombrowskis other two huge deals Fielder and Fister werent so simple. Despite his postseason woes and sour demeanor, Fielders bat will be missed. And the Fister trade was a puzzle, weakening a strong rotation. Dombrowski disputes that, and expects lefty reliever Ian Krol to play an immediate role with lefty starter Robbie Ray not far behind.

But the offense needs work, no doubt. Third base and left field are shaky, and shortstop Jose Iglesias has a magical glove and suspect bat. Two years ago, faced with a gaping hole after Victor Martinezs knee injury, the Tigers shocked everyone and landed Fielder.

So, another winter surprise? Doubtful. Landing Robinson Cano for a couple hundred million would qualify, and feel free to dream about it. But as the Tigers stable of superstars has grown, Dombrowski knows he cant keep dreaming, even with such a generous owner.

We have one of the top payrolls in baseball, and yet I never really know whats gonna happen (with finances), Dombrowski said. Because theres a couple times in the past where all of a sudden Mike Ilitch may say, Why dont you keep an open mind toward this? But I dont want to create that anticipation either. I like our club the way it is right now. Sometimes fine-tuning is the way you go.

Still in it to win it

The Tigers never close any door, but Dombrowskis next move or two might be smaller and smarter, to maintain payroll flexibility. He referenced Wednesday the model of the Atlanta Braves. They won for years with an ace pitching trio of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, and filled in pieces around them.

Its not your money, so naturally youd rather see Choo or Cano. But when I asked Dombrowski if there was any planned cutbacks, or lessening in the win-now mentality, he about leapt out of his suit to refute it.

Oh, no, no, no, he said. Were trying to win a championship, but all of a sudden if you blink and you got seven free agents at the same time, thats not real smart. Youre trying to win now, and we are. Id sacrifice the future for the present, but you still have to be aware of other things.

Grabbing the shiniest bauble didnt work with the Fielder signing, and if Ilitch and Dombrowski are reluctant to invest so much in another slugger, I get it. Its about pitching, and its about Scherzers contract.

The Tigers are retooling more than retreating after three straight postseasons at the cusp of a championship.

Dombrowski sounds like a guy done with big deals for now, but you cant ever rule it out. Until the Tigers win it all, there always has to be something next.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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