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 that’s a good thing. It’s also a daunting thing. It’s why they can land one of the best closers, Joe Nathan, and immediately field more questions.

Such as: OK, what’s next? Who’s 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. They’re younger and quicker, although not necessarily cheaper. They’re better defensively. But you can’t say they’re better overall, not yet, and it’s 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 don’t 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 it’s 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, I’d 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 didn’t 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 we’ve cleared that up — What’s next? Who’s next?!

“I can’t say we’re better, but I can say we’re 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 don’t know where they all are.”

Still work to do

This is the price of doing business at the highest level, and it’s 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 Fister’s spot, they’re 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.

Dombrowski’s other two huge deals — Fielder and Fister — weren’t so simple. Despite his postseason woes and sour demeanor, Fielder’s 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 Martinez’s 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 can’t keep dreaming, even with such a generous owner.

“We have one of the top payrolls in baseball, and yet I never really know what’s gonna happen (with finances),” Dombrowski said. “Because there’s a couple times in the past where all of a sudden Mike Ilitch may say, ‘Why don’t you keep an open mind toward this?’ But I don’t 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 Dombrowski’s 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.

It’s not your money, so naturally you’d 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. “We’re trying to win a championship, but all of a sudden if you blink and you got seven free agents at the same time, that’s not real smart. You’re trying to win now, and we are. I’d sacrifice the future for the present, but you still have to be aware of other things.”

Grabbing the shiniest bauble didn’t work with the Fielder signing, and if Ilitch and Dombrowski are reluctant to invest so much in another slugger, I get it. It’s about pitching, and it’s about Scherzer’s 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 can’t 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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