The first of the key off-season decisions were announced before the Tigers even held their press conference, that being that the 2013 options for Jhonny Peralta ($6 million) and Octavio Dotel ($3.5 million) would be picked up. There had been some questions on both, due to Peralta's limited defensive ability and drop in batting average, as well as Dotel's comments during the postseason that ruffled feathers. Ultimately however, both are viewed as key components to the 2013 club.
On Peralta, Dombrowski stated, "Jhonny is not an athletic shortstop, but he played much better defensively later in the year." Dombrowski also mentioned that Peralta had started doing agility drills in the second half of the year, and they plan to expand that program for his off-season workout regimen.
Dombrowski also confirmed that they'll tender a contract to Brennan Boesch, who will be due a raise this season via arbitration. Boesch's struggles were rather dramatic this season, as his OPS fell nearly 150 points to .659, and things were so bad at the end of the season that he was relegated to the bench for much of the stretch run, and left off the postseason roster entirely.
On the other hand, it was also confirmed that a few familiar faces would be departing via free agency. Closer Jose Valverde, whose struggles this year compared to prior years, along with his postseason collapse, were well documented, will not be pursued. Likewise, with the expected return of Victor Martinez at designated hitter, there will no longer be a place for Delmon Young, either. Finally, while the Tigers would have some interest in bringing Gerald Laird back, that won't be the case so long as his current expectations for playing time and salary are higher than what the Tigers are willing to allocate.
As such, while things can always change and the Tigers could make a big splash or a big trade, it appears the Tigers off-season plans will be relatively modest as of now. They'll save some money on dropping Valverde and Young, but will also owe raises to a number of players (Boesch, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, etc.) that will likely cancel out much of that savings. In essence, the off-season will boil down to three key parts:
1) Re-sign Anibal Sanchez
Sanchez was huge for the team down the stretch, posting a 2.43 ERA in the final month of the year with 37 strikeouts and just five walks. That success continued into the postseason, where he posted a 1.77 ERA over three starts.
At 28, and one of the top starting pitchers on the free agent market, Sanchez is likely due a big pay day. Would the Tigers be willing to offer him a multi-year deal worth upwards of $10 million per year? Hard to say they would, given how much they already have invested in Justin Verlander, as well as how much they'll need to spend on retaining Fister and Scherzer.
On the upside of retaining Sanchez, they could potentially move another starting pitcher to clear salary and also find an upgrade for the team. Such a move though would leave the team dangerously thin in the starting pitching realm, with no strong "sixth" option out there.
If the Tigers were to be unable to bring him back, it appears they'd be comfortable going into 2013 with Porcello and left-hander Drew Smyly, but in that case, might have the financial means to add a relatively affordable veteran to potentially fill in, or work out of the bullpen.
2) Solidify the Bullpen
To be clear, what "solidify" means can be up for interpretation. Jim Leyland has traditionally had very defined roles for his bullpen – a closer, a setup man, a late-inning left-hander, etc. Without Valverde, the Tigers are losing that guy at the top, and unless they're willing to spend for someone like Rafael Soriano, or trade for someone like Chris Perez, they probably aren't going to have a defined closer entering the 2013 season.
Instead, the Tigers are likely going to come to camp with a number of talented pieces, and see how things shake out. Phil Coke shined in the postseason when the closer role was up in the air, while Joaquin Benoit had been mentioned as an option when he was signed should the Tigers elect to let Valverde leave. Al Alburquerque also has the devastating slider, and Brayan Villarreal can bring upper 90's heat, even if he can't always control it.
The wild card remains 21-year old fireballer Bruce Rondon. Rondon, who features a fastball that can reach 100 mph along with a very good slider, posted a 1.53 ERA across three levels in 2012, striking out more than a batter per inning.
"I would not discount him from the competition," said Dombrowski. "It would not surprise me if he earns it. He averages 100 miles an hour with his fastball. This guy is a special potential closer. He has the perfect mentality for it."
Would the Tigers be willing to hand over the closer's job on a team competing for a World Series to an unproven 21-year old? Probably wouldn't happen out of the gate, but if Rondon puts in the necessary work this off-season, the job could be his sooner or later.
Upgrade the Corner Outfield
This doesn't need much explanation, but the Tigers were consistently hurt by a lack of productive at-bats from their corner outfield spots. Andy Dirks hit .322 with an .857 OPS, but missed more than two months with an achillies injury. Quintin Berry was a flash in the pan that got far more playing time than he probably should have. Boesch's struggles have already been mentioned. From a position that is usually not a premium defensive spot, receiving well below average offense will consistently be a killer.
How bad were the struggles? The Tigers right fielders combined to post a .235/.285/.357 slash line. That's good for an OPS+ of above 70, well below league average, and certainly nowhere near acceptable for a team that wants to compete at the highest levels.
The Tigers have two top prospects knocking on the door, one of whom already received playing time in 2012 in Avisail Garcia. The other of course being top prospect Nick Castellanos. However, both have plenty of development left to do, and it would be a stretch for them to be pushed to Detroit on Opening Day and expect them to compete at a high level.
That means the Tigers are going to have to look outside the organization for a solution, and luckily despite a weak free agent crop, there are quite a few corner outfield options out there. Many Tigers fans have immediately focused their attention on Torii Hunter, who is likely going to be squeezed out of a crowded Angels outfield, but coming off another strong year, might still be worth a contract the Tigers aren't likely to match. Other options or potential names to keep in mind would include Ryan Ludwick, Ichiro Suzuki, and even Melky Cabrera, who could be had for an affordable one-year deal as a reclamation project.
And now that we've walked you through the outline for the off-season plans, be prepared for the curveball that can always come from this club, in which the Tigers throw $100 million at Josh Hamilton.