Upgrade in lineup might be necessary for Tigers

The regular season is over for the Detroit Tigers, who finished 81-81 for third place in the American League Central Division. In the eyes of a major league front office this just means the offseason has begun early. General Manager Dave Dombrowski is tasked with filling the holes and bringing this team back to the playoffs in 2011. The Tigers have been looking forward to this offseason because, unlike last year, the organization will have a considerable amount of payroll flexibility thanks to big money contacts coming off the books.

Lefties Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson were already let go during the season, but the $21.3 million they were paid not to pitch for the Tigers won’t carry over to the 2011 payroll. Right-hander Jeremy Bonderman and outfielder Johnny Damon made $12.5 and $8 million respectively in 2010 and neither is likely to return to the team. Position players Magglio Ordonez and Brandon Inge combined to make approximately $24 million in 2010, both are free agents and likely to return to the club with pay cuts.

How big of players the Tigers will be in free agency depends on how much money owner Mike Illitch, who recently purchased the Detroit Pistons, is willing to put back into the team that has had a payroll greater than $133 million in two of the last three years. Illitch set the goal of bringing a World Series back to Detroit when he bought the team in 1992 and this offseason sis where he needs to come to the plate. If the Tigers can get a big money offensive player many teams are interested in like Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth or Adam Dunn, they would be close to contending seriously.

Offense is the area they need to upgrade the most. The Tigers were eighth out of the 14 American League teams in runs scored. The infield is likely to return three starters from this year’s Opening Day lineup in Miguel Cabrera, Brandon Inge, and Scott Sizemore, who was sent down after hitting .205 in April and May but exploded with a .305/.357/.577 line in 28 September plate appearances.

The position they have to upgrade is clearly catcher. Gerald Laird and Alex Avila did not get it done offensively this year, posting ugly numbers even for catchers. Laird posted a negative-10.1 Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) with Seattle’s Adam Moore and Los Angeles’ Jeff Mathis as the only two catchers in the A.L. rating worse offensively. Avila was also in the negative numbers, posting a negative-0.4 VORP. The top hitting catching free agent is Victor Martinez (37.1 VORP), the steady career .300 hitter in nine big league seasons. If the Tigers can’t get him, one name they will want to look at in free agency is John Buck (25.8 VORP), who caught 118 games for the Blue Jays while also hitting 20 home runs. Any production they get out of the catcher’s spot in the lineup will surely be an upgrade.

Although the primary objective this offseason is the offense, the team still needs to add a pitcher. Dombrowski builds his pitching staffs with power arms throughout the rotation and bullpen. The rotation’s top three of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello is the foundation of a strong young core. They must fill out the back end with more than the below average Armando Galarraga (4.49 earned run average) and reliever yet to start Phil Coke.

I’m not suggesting the Tigers need to do something crazy like top all offers for Cliff Lee and insert Jacob Turner into the rotation out of spring training. But adding a lefty, like free agents Ted Lilly or Jorge De La Rosa, would give the rotation balance and much needed depth.

The mission is clear, this team has got to get back to the playoffs. If Dombrowski and Illitch can improve the ball club substantially this winter we could very well could see the Tigers still playing at this time next year.

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