Placido Polanco, who has been a key component for the Tigers up the middle of much of the past five years is a pending free agent and the Tigers have multiple decisions to make when it comes to Polanco.
First, they have to decide whether or not they're interested in resigning him. Polanco as stated has been a key contributor for the club, but may not have many great seasons left. At 34, he's not getting any younger. His offensive production was down in 2009, and his defense is no longer among the best in the game (his revised zone rating was good for 7th among the ten second basemen in the AL that qualified).
All that being said, Polanco is still likely to receive a big contract this offseason given his consistent year over year production. But the Tigers already have lots of aging, expensive veterans, and given the amount of money already locked up in players that aren't producing, the Tigers may be hard pressed to extend another contract to another player that could end up in the same boat.
The next question that needs to be answered then becomes whether or not to offer Polanco arbitration. If the Tigers don't, he's free to sign with any other team, and the organization receives no draft pick compensation in return. However, offering arbitration could come with a price. According to Eddie Bajek over at Tigers Thoughts, Polanco is likely to be a Type A free agent this winter, meaning any team that signs him will have to forfeit one of their own draft picks in addition to the sandwich pick the Tigers would be awarded. That sort of price tag could make Polanco too steep for the buyers out there, and Polanco without a strong offer could accept arbitration from the Tigers, leaving them on the hook with Polanco for another season at the price tag they may not want to meet.
2. What will the Tigers do about the back end of the bullpen?
Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney emerged as a very formidable 1-2 punch at the end of games, giving the Tigers confidence heading into the eighth inning that they'd be able to exit the game with a victory. But both Lyon and Rodney are free agents this fall (both Type B according to Bajek), and both are likely going to be looking to cash in.
After converting 37 saves in 38 opportunities, Rodney is likely to cash in his contract year, as there are always teams out there in need of a closer. Lyon doesn't have the save record to warrant the contract Rodney will covet, but in many ways had a better year than Rodney, and could command a hefty contract along the lines of what many top setup men receive.
So do the Tigers try and resign either? If not, do they look elsewhere on the free agent market to add a reliever? Or do they turn to the talented but unproven Ryan Perry? And of course, there is still the enigma that is Joel Zumaya, who despite all his injury concerns, could still be a dominant reliever if he can ever get healthy.
3. Can the Tigers add a bat for the middle of the order?
Financially, this well could be the most difficult goal to achieve and might have to be something that the Tigers find within. Positions are open – the Tigers could make an upgrade at either shortstop or in left field where things are unsettled and could use a steady, everyday player to take the role.
But the key factor of course will be money. It's not secret given the amount of money the Tigers already have tied up in current players that it will be tough for the club to make a splash in the free agent market. The shortstop market is limited, with 34-year old Marco Scutaro highlighting the free agent crop. There are plenty of outfielders that could slide into left field, but would the Tigers be able to pony up to land a player along the lines of Jason Bay, Bobby Abreu, Jermaine Dye or Carl Crawford (and would the team be willing to part with their all important first round draft pick to do it?)
Given the financing concerns and the limited assets when it comes to tradable commodities, the Tigers are likely going to have a tough time going outside the organization to fill this role, and might have to peg their hopes on the likes of Ryan Strieby to fill it.
4. Can the Tigers find two suitable starting pitchers among the also rans on the pitching staff?
When you think that you have three pitchers that are combined going to make $34 million in 2010, you would think not only should you feel comfortable with that trio, but you should be excited about the results they're going to produce.
But we all know excitement isn't the word used to describe the 2010 outlook for Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis. The most hope surrounds Bonderman, that with another offseason and more rehab he'll get closer to the pitcher he was when the 2008 season began. There's less optimism for Robertson, who had a couple strong starts littered among some bad, along with a couple months of less than stellar relief. And the least amount of hope is saved for Dontrelle Willis, who most have resigned themselves to accept that he is simply no longer the pitcher he was from a few years ago.
Given how much money is wrapped up in the above players, there will be no free agent acquisitions or new names to add to the mix beyond those that might emerge from within. It will be on this group to find a fourth and fifth starter and give the Tigers serviceable starts every fourth and fifth day for the 2010 campaign.
Do the Tigers' aging vets have one more productive year left?
This question is especially pointed at Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen, two players thought to be keys to the Tigers' team in 2009, really were often times the source of frustration rather than gratification. Guillen battled injuries and missed a majority of the season, while Ordonez limped through a pathetic first half of the season only to see a resurgence (minus the home run power) in the second half.
We've probably reached the point where Ordonez will no longer be a 25-30 home run threat as he's aged and likely doesn't possess the same strength and bat speed to make that possibility a reality. But his bat control and his batting eye is still there, and there's no reason to believe Ordonez can't still be a very good hitter for the Tigers in 2010, hitting along the lines of .320/.380/.475. Guillen meanwhile has seen his offensive production fall in each of the last three seasons (peaking back in 2006) and with two years and $26 million more on the contract, the Tigers need to hope that a shifted focus to just hitting (read: everyday DH) will help extend Guillen's career and keep his bat a threat.
If either or both can't hold up their end, it will leave a gaping hole in the middle of the order for the Tigers, and likely force the Tigers to replace the two with players not cut out to be replacements.
The Tigers had a better-than-expected 2009, and with the right moves, could have another strong season in 2010. But how these key questions get answered will go a long way toward determining that.