Detroit – General manager Al Avila will assemble his front office and coaching staff Monday to begin hammering out the Tigers' offseason strategy – from potential free agent and trade targets to possible trade chips within the organization.
Avila stated clearly what his top priority will be during his postseason media luncheon Oct. 8: Pitching. He hopes to acquire two starting pitchers – one top-three talent and another bottom-of-the-rotation player – and "at least a couple" of bullpen arms, including, presumably, a closer.
The Tigers presently have an estimated $132 million in committed salary for 2016. The luxury tax threshold is $189 million.
Included in that $132 million estimate are projected pay raises (from MLB Trade Rumors) for five arbitration-eligible players – outfielder J.D. Martinez (from $3 million in 2015 to $7.8 million), shortstop Jose Iglesias ($1.4 million to $2.2 million), super utility player Andrew Romine ($525,000 to $700,000), and pitchers Al Alburquerque ($1.7 million to $2.2 million) and Neftali Feliz ($4.2 million to $5 million).
Avila said the Tigers were exploring the possibility of making a long-term contract extension offer to Martinez.
All in all, the Tigers could hit the free-agent market with less than $50 million to spend this offseason.
Thus, barring a Prince Fielder-type intervention from owner Mike Ilitch, it seems unlikely the Tigers could be serious players for top-end free agents like pitcher David Price (for whom the bidding is likely to start at $200 million) or Zack Greinke (bidding starting around $150 million).
So, Avila and company will have to be creative. They will have to explore trades, though their tradeable assets seem limited. Avila made the point several times that to trade any of the pitching prospects they acquired at the deadline this year – Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Luis Cessa -- could be counterproductive.
One possible trade chip could be shortstop Dixon Machado. Iglesias is 25. Avila views him as an established, known quantity at shortstop, even with his history of injury.
Machado, getting a chance to play regularly at the big league level for the first time, showed himself to be an above-average defensive player with still some untapped offensive potential.
Asked if Machado, 23, had shown enough to possibly unseat Iglesias, Avila said no.
"In our situation, we are not rebuilding, we are going in trying to win a championship," Avila said. "So the less amount of question marks you have, the better. The less amount of question marks you have on paper, the better you are.
"What are question marks? They are young players who really haven't been tested at the Major League level, and that is Dixon Machado. It would behoove us to go in with minimal question marks."
The Tigers also have another shortstop prospect on the rise in JaCoby Jones, whom they acquired from the Pirates for Joakim Soria. Jones, after hitting 23 home runs in A-ball, hit 16 last year in High-A and Double-A. He figures to be the starter at Triple-A Toledo next season.
That, plus the reliability of Romine as a back-up to Iglesias, could make Machado expendable.
Beyond Machado, the Tigers would have to either part with a key component like Ian Kinsler, one or two of their prized pitching prospects or some former top prospects like Bruce Rondon, Steven Moya and Kyle Lobstein.
Hard to imagine a team like the Padres giving up starting pitchers like Andrew Cashner or Tyson Ross or closer Craig Kimbrel for any package of those players.
In all probability, Avila is going to find his two starting pitchers on the free-agent market. And, in all probability, Price, Greinke and Johnny Cueto will be too expensive. Others, like Bartolo Colon, Aaron Harang, John Lackey and Hisashi Iwakuma, may be too old or unwilling to come to the Tigers on a one-year deal. Still others, like Brandon Beachy, Doug Fister and Mat Latos, may bring more question marks than answers.
Here, then, is a list of free-agent starting pitchers who could be among those discussed as potential targets this week. The ages listed are what they will be next season.
Jeff Samardzija, right-hander, 31: His fastball dropped from 95-96 mph to 93-94 mph last season, but that wasn't his main problem. He lost the feel for what had been his most effective secondary pitch – the split-fingered fastball.
Without it, he lost his ability to induce ground balls. His ground ball to fly ball ratio was a career-low 0.67 percent. His ground ball outs to fly ball outs ratio fell to 0.86, another career low. His line drive percentage of 28 was a career high.
He gave up 228 hits and 29 home runs – both tops in the American League.
Those elevated numbers may serve to make him more affordable for a team like the Tigers. The question will become: Do the Tigers think those numbers were an aberration?
Do they believe he can regain his splitter or come up with another quality secondary pitch?
He pitched a complete-game, one-hit shutout against the Tigers at Comerica Park on Sept. 21. He allowed one run and struck out seven against the Tigers in April at Comerica. The Tigers know what he's capable of.
Jordan Zimmermann, right-hander, 30: Preface this by saying he may be too expensive. He made $16.5 million last season.
But, he would be ideal. He's durable (four straight seasons of 30-plus starts) and stingy. His ERA was 3.32 with an excellent .306 opponents average on balls put in play and a 1.16 WHIP.
He challenges hitters with still-firm four-seam and two-seam fastballs (both averaging 93 mph) and gets more fly ball outs, which should play well at Comerica Park.
Yovani Gallardo, right-hander, 30: He is the same age as Zimmermann and has thrown nearly 400 more innings, a concern in terms of contract length. But his durability is unquestioned. He has made at least 30 starts in seven straight seasons.
He was a key contributor in the Rangers' playoff drive. The team won seven of his last nine starts. He beat the Tigers twice in that stretch, including shutting them out at Comerica. He also earned a win in the ALDS.
He lost eight games in which the Rangers got him two runs or less. He was 13-3 in the others. He was also 3-0 in six starts against AL Central teams – allowing just four earned runs in 34 innings.
Mike Leake, right-hander, 28: Like Samardzija, Leake lost the feel for one of his weapons last season – his changeup. His strikeout totals dropped from 164 in 2014 to 119.
Still, he posted a solid 3.70 ERA with a career-low 1.16 WHIP and .240 opponents' batting average. His BAPIP (opponents' average on balls put in play) was also a career-low .260. And that's with a rough nine-start stint with the Giants where he went 2-5 with an ERA just under 5.00.
He's a career National Leaguer and it's fair to wonder how his low-90s fastball and touchy-feely secondary pitches would play in the American League. But, he is a workhorse, making at least 30 starts for four straight seasons.
J.A. Happ, left-hander, 33: Something clicked after he was traded to Pittsburgh last season, and you can't just pin it on the Pirates' well-documented system of defensive placement. After struggling most of the season with the Mariners, he went 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA and 1.026 WHIP for the Pirates.
It wasn't that he got more ground ball outs, which is what you expect from Pirates pitchers. It was his strikeout rate that went up – from 17.5 percent to 27.7 percent. The reason, he threw more four-seam fastballs.
And by throwing more four-seamers than two-seamers, his average velocity jumped from 90 to 92 mph. His 3.3 pitcher's wins above replacement was second only to Price among left-handed potential free agents.
His 31 starts this season was his career-high. The Tigers will need to determine if he's a late-bloomer or if 2015 was a fluke.
Brett Anderson, left-hander, 28: The Tigers, given their financial constraints, are going to have to hit on some non-marquee players on the verge of a breakout season. Anderson reached 180 innings for the first time in his big-league career and he faded noticeably in the final month.
Still, he was 10-9 and posted a 3.69 ERA with a 1.33 WHIP with a .310 average on balls put in play.
More intriguing, he threw a lot of ground balls – 66.3 percent ground balls, a 3.58 ratio on ground ball to fly ball outs. He has a plus two-seam fastball and slider, which presumably would play well for the Tigers, who improved their infield range this season.