Wojo: Tough tweaking of Tigers will test Dombrowski

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Tigers might still be close, but the harsh truth is, they're not getting any closer to that elusive championship. And here comes the difficult part for GM Dave Dombrowski, who's adept at collecting the big pieces, but now must focus on the finer details.

The bullpen isn't a minor detail, of course. It's a gaping, ugly hole that has to be fixed, just like the defense has to be fixed, just like the outfield and the bench have to be upgraded. The Tigers aren't remotely in blow-it-up mode, not as long as Mike Ilitch is the owner, but tweaking and tinkering can be just as tough.

Dombrowski will be tested this offseason, because even if he wanted to change a lot, there isn't a lot he can change, with stars locked into big contracts (or looking for big contracts). The Tigers want Victor Martinez back, and I think they'll be able to re-sign him. Max Scherzer probably will leave because Scott Boras' clients test the market and the Tigers can't reasonably invest another $150 million-plus in a starting pitcher.

Scherzer was pretty much gone the day David Price arrived via trade, so the Tigers prepared for this. But with the other key issues, especially the bullpen, there's no quick fix or obvious free-agent prize. The Tigers flaws were graphically exposed in the Orioles sweep, and now the real painful process begins, watching the Royals and Orioles battle for the AL pennant using less-celebrated ingredients.

I don't know if Dombrowski likes the composition of his team as much as he says, or he just knows it's impossible to alter the course now. The focus on first-year manager Brad Ausmus was intense, but he's back because he won the division, then lost a series due to the bullpen implosion.

"I think we're close, we still have a good team," Dombrowski said Tuesday. "People are disappointed, but you have to keep things in perspective from my spot. With our starting rotation, I don't know if there will be many that are better than our four guys. It's up to us to improve our bullpen."

Heavy up top

Detroit has won the division four straight years, and Dombrowski dutifully pointed out the 18-7 record against Kansas City and Baltimore in the regular season. The Tigers are top-heavy with Miguel Cabrera, Martinez, Ian Kinsler and free-agent Torii Hunter. Even without Scherzer, they'll be top-heavy in the rotation with Price, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello. It has been a successful formula, but when you rely so much on pricey stars, there isn't much left to fill out the bench.

And when one expensive commodity fails, it's especially costly. For instance, Joe Nathan will be back next season at $10 million, and the Tigers can only hope he figures things out. He'll likely open the season as the closer, but if he falters again, he'll be dumped. It's not like Dombrowski has ignored the bullpen problems. He surrendered good prospects for Joakim Soria, which is why I think he'll exercise the club option for $7 million and hope the effective Soria returns.

That's a lot of dough riding on two relievers who once were great, but not here. Ilitch's hunger for stars is legendary and his competitive spending is admirable. It just doesn't always follow a set pattern. Dombrowski refused to discuss the payroll, except to say it will be "hefty."

Hefty is better than skimpy, but all those bulky contracts hamper flexibility. The Tigers payroll of $163 million was fourth in the majors, behind the Dodgers, Yankees and Phillies, who also aren't playing right now. Of the final four teams, the Giants were sixth in payroll, and the Cardinals (13th), Orioles (14th) and Royals (18th) were farther down.

"We are a top-heavy team, but I don't know how that's gonna change," Dombrowski said. "We have the most generous owner you can possibly have. If you're gonna have four starters being paid, and a couple superstars in the middle of the lineup, that means maybe there's not as much available to do other things."

In those narrow margins, it's up to Dombrowski and his staff to find unheralded pieces such as J.D. Martinez, who saved the season. Dombrowski will try to balance the roster by adding a speedy center fielder to take the place of Rajai Davis, who's not an everyday replacement for Austin Jackson. The Tigers have to get better defensively, and if shortstop Jose Iglesias returns from his leg injuries, as the team believes he will, they'll be instantly upgraded.

Looking to the stars

The Tigers have contended for nine years, reaching the playoffs five times. It has been a tremendous ride, stirring the passion and expectations of fans, and yet ultimately unfulfilling. When the Tigers get close, they don't really get close, losing eight of nine games in the World Series.

Great starting pitching gets you only so far, like to the seventh or eighth innings. When postseason games tighten, the bullpens matter more, and the Royals are winning almost completely because of it. By the end, the Tigers were still trying to squeeze pitches out of Joba Chamberlain, Nathan, Phil Coke and others. And the bench — Don Kelly, Eugenio Suarez, Bryan Holaday, Hernan Perez, Ezequiel Carrera — did nothing.

"We haven't gotten it done at crucial times," Dombrowski said. "I don't think it's just the depth. Sometimes if you're paying your superstars, they have to rise to the occasion."

That means Cabrera staying healthy, and Martinez returning, and Price dominating, and Verlander recapturing what he lost. The distance between an open window of contention and a closed one can disappear quickly.

The urgency is rising for Dombrowski to find the smaller pieces to keep the window open.