Five directions the Tigers might proceed in offseason

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski sat down for an hour or so last Tuesday, taking one question after another about how his team had come up short again, and how he's going to assure it finally gets over the hump in 2015.

But there weren't many definitive answers. Or, really, any at all.

Heck, he wasn't even willing to concede the Tigers' two mega-free agents, Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez, will be made one-year qualifying offers. Everyone and their cousin knows they will.

Dombrowski, though, says those answers — as well as whether the team picks up reliever Joakim Soria's option — will start coming after the conclusion of the World Series.

"We're really just getting started," Dombrowski said.

For now, we're left to wonder just what the Tigers will do. On the surface, it seems the franchise is bracing for the most significant turnover in a decade. Then again, their owner is Mike Ilitch. While occasionally he tightens the purse strings this time of year — cash is the reason Placido Polanco was allowed to walk, the reason they traded Doug Fister to sign Joe Nathan, the reason they didn't risk extending Jhonny Peralta a qualifying offer one winter ago — he's far more likely to spend than he is to get the budget back in order.

For certain, the bullpen will be a major target for upgrade, as will the bench. And they have an opportunity to improve the outfield defense. As the Tigers sit home, they see the Royals heading to the World Series, thanks to buying in bulk those ingredients found in an aisle the Tigers routinely pass over in baseball's supermarket.

But big-ticket items also are the Tigers' forte, so we're likely in for a shocker — or maybe even two.

Free agency gets underway five days after the conclusion of the World Series, and given the rather underwhelming class, the action is expected to be fast and furious — with trades, as well.

Here are five bold directions I could see the Tigers going.

1. Parting with Price

This is the one that's not likely to sit too well with a fan base that likes big stars, and likes the idea of Price sliding to the top of the rotation once Scherzer departs, as is widely expected — but not a certainty. Fans also wouldn't like the idea of Price being gone just months after he cost the Tigers a hefty package that included Austin Jackson, Drew Smyly and shortstop prospect Willy Adames.

But dangling Price on the trade market makes sense on multiple levels.

For starters, there's absolutely no indication he wants to stay in Detroit long-term. I get the impression he's not sold at all.

Then there's this: Not every team will win one of the Big Three, Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields, so Price, 29, could be a good consolation prize, at least for a year before he hits free agency.

Then there's this: The Tigers' holes are significant. A conservative list of needs includes multiple bullpen pieces, a center fielder, a corner outfielder and some reserve depth. Given the money the Tigers have tied up in their big stars, and the raises other guys are due in arbitration, it's unreasonable to expect Dombrowski to buy everything on his wish list.

The key here is center field. The free-agent market is awful — it's basically Colby Rasmus or nobody, and Rasmus, let's face it, is no prize. Rather than settling on him, Price could realistically land the Tigers a center fielder, and fill another hole or two.

Two teams to watch: The Dodgers and the Red Sox.

The Dodgers were the Tigers' chief competition for Price at the trade deadline, but they hesitated to part with the prospects the Rays were asking for. The Tigers wouldn't be asking for prospects — they'd want immediate help, and one name that stands out is Matt Kemp, 30, who had a fine bounce-back season, but who wants to play center field. He was squeezed to the corners this year in L.A. Interestingly, the Dodgers' new front-office boss, Andrew Friedman, was the guy who had to part with Price because the Rays couldn't afford him. He might find himself, now, in a position to acquire him, because with the Dodgers, money is absolutely no object. That's good news for the Tigers, who would want some financial compensation, too, given the five years and $107 million left on Kemp's deal. But how could the Dodgers pass on a Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Price 1-2-3?

The Red Sox also make some sense, if they can't reach agreement on a reunion with Lester – and all signs point to him going elsewhere, because Boston doesn't like to go more than five years for a pitcher. (In other words, Ben Cherington is brilliant.) Lester, it seems, could be a Cub, where he'd reunite with Theo Epstein. So Price, another high-powered lefty, would be a good fit, and a candidate to take the extension offer Lester once turned down. The Red Sox have some center-field help that might interest the Tigers, but none more than Jackie Bradley Jr., 24, a defensive star and speedster who still is learning to hit at this level. Boston also has the secondary pieces to make a Bradley-centered trade work.

2. Raid the Royals

The Royals are flying high right now, heading to their first World Series since 1985. They haven't even lost a playoff game this year. It's been remarkable to watch.

But …

"Kansas City will have its issues at the end of the year, too," said Dombrowski, "like any club."

He's right. The Royals have some free-agency concerns, too — and there's no indication their budget is going to skyrocket from the $90 million it was this year. The World Series is a boon for business, to be sure. But Kansas City remains small market, trophy or not. That's why most folks expect Shields, their ace, to walk at season's end. There's another player that's just as valuable to them, though, and that's right fielder Nori Aoki. Both are 32.

The Tigers likely are saying goodbye to Scherzer, and have to at least be open to trading Price. That would open up a rotation spot for Shields, and probably at a far more affordable price. While Scherzer wants $200 million and Lester could approach $150 million, most look at Shields as the best bargain, probably seeking a deal in the $100 million range — or just a little more than the Tigers spent on Anibal Sanchez a couple offseasons ago.

Shields, Sanchez, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello still isn't a shabby rotation, and it wouldn't suffocate the budget like Scherzer, Price, Sanchez, Verlander and Porcello would.

Then there's Aoki, who I think should be one of the Tigers' chief targets. He doesn't do much great, but he does a lot of things well — like run, bunt, play good corner-outfield defense, and he leads off. The Tigers need some speed, some good outfield defense and a leadoff hitter. Good fit, eh? Aoki also plays with great energy, a personality which the Royals seem to feed off. And we can all agree, the Tigers could use some of that. Aoki, 32, like Shields, also would be a bargain at his position, given he's only a third-year player who's currently making around $2 million a year.

3. Hello, old friends

The Marlins never got much of a return from the Tigers for Miguel Cabrera years ago. They took a bundle of prospects, and saw none of them pan out — at least, not in Miami.

But two of the pitchers have gone on to find success elsewhere: Andrew Miller and Burke Badenhop.

Interestingly, both were starters in the Tigers system, but have found their calling in the bullpen, and in Boston. Miller, the lefty who was the Tigers' top draft pick in 2006 and actually pitched for them in September that year, was absolutely dominant this year, first with the Red Sox and later with the Orioles — who acquired him after the Tigers' pitch was turned down. Dombrowski finally acknowledged the Tigers were very close on Miller, as The News previously reported, having offered multiple players. Cherington later told Dombrowski he went with the Orioles because he'd have felt guilty asking the Tigers to sweeten their offer even more.

Miller's value was on full display in the American League Division Series sweep over the Tigers, when he didn't allow a hit in 31/3 innings. His value is through the roof, and he's expected to be the best-paid reliever this offseason — as, according to reports, Miller, 29, is a big union guy who will go where the most money is. The Tigers need to be the team with the most money, even if it's $24 million over three years.

As for Badenhop, 31, he doesn't get the hype, but he's been very serviceable the last three years, for the Rays, Brewers and Red Sox, with a WHIP just over 1.200. In a market that's flush with quality relievers — Yankees closer David Robertson is another name to watch — Badenhop might end being overlooked, and thus a bargain. And given the Tigers' vast list of needs, they need to find a bargain or two.

4. Soria saga just beginning

We'll probably never know all the details, all of what's said between the GM and agent, but there is likely to be some serious drama brewing on the Soria front.

While Soria's people have to be hoping the Tigers decline his $7 million option, so they can take him to the open market and sign him to a club that actually has a plan for him, Dombrowski is unlikely to do that. He traded two top prospects to get Soria, and while it didn't work out in 2014, the bullpen needs a lot of help for 2015, and Soria already is in place at a reasonable price.

So, assuming the option is picked up, the Tigers and Soria's agent, Oscar Suarez, will be chatting — mostly about whether the Tigers will have a defined role for his client moving forward, unlike this year. And the Tigers might not be in a position to set anything in stone, given they are fine sticking with Joe Nathan at closer, and they continue to sell us that Bruce Rondon will be ready for spring training — despite having Tommy John surgery last March. (Some perspective here: Joel Harahan had Tommy John surgery in May 2013, and never was recovered enough to help the Tigers this year.)

And if unimpressed with that plan, it seems very likely a trade demand could be in the works. Soria, 30, is embarrassed and devastated how things played out in Detroit, and might not mind a fresh start. That would be painful for the Tigers, should they decide to honor such a request, because they're not likely to get anything near the haul they gave to the Rangers to acquire Soria, in Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel.

5. V-Mart breaks the bank

This, of course, wouldn't be the boldest of predictions. Martinez wants to come back to Detroit. Dombrowski wants Martinez back in Detroit. It'll probably happen.

But it's not going to cheap — so Martinez, who is such a huge piece of the Tigers lineup, basically has the advantage. They have to pay him, anything it takes — and the odds are, it'll take a lot. In fact, don't be surprised if it's the largest annual contract given to a designated hitter.

Currently, David Ortiz owns the record. He will make $16 million next season.

Martinez, 35, is wrapping a four-year deal that paid him $12.5 million a year. Whether he gets another four-year deal, taking him to the doorstep of his 40s, remains to be seen. But one could see him getting a substantial annual raise, coming off a year in which he led the league in on-base percentage and OPS, and set a career high with 32 homers.

Martinez also has the luxury of being one of the few big bats on the open market — Nelson Cruz is another — which is why so many teams already have been reported to have interest, such as the Indians and White Sox, who'd have the double-bonus of adding a big bat inflicting pain on the Tigers. The Yankees, A's, Angels and Orioles could be fits, too. And so, it's simple economics. If the demand is high, well, then so is the price.

Good news for Martinez. Bad news for the Tigers, who aren't in any position to say no.