After a disappointing 2015 season that saw the Detroit Tigers miss the postseason for the first time in five years, fans can expect a busy winter for the club’s front office. General manager Al Avila has already vowed to bolster the team’s starting rotation, and considering the way last season played out, the bullpen could use some reliable arms as well.
Those are just a few of the pressing needs facing the organization this offseason, though. With a little more than three months until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, here are 10 things to watch for:
1. Avila being aggressive: This will be the first true glimpse into Avila’s leadership style as the 57-year-old enters his first offseason since taking over for Dave Dombrowski as Tigers GM. Avila, who has a strong baseball pedigree and ample scouting experience, is expected to be a significant player in the free-agent market, considering the team’s laundry list of needs that includes, at the very least, two starting pitchers, a bona fide closer and additional bullpen help.
2. Show me the money: When it comes to opening up the purse strings, Avila has indicated that team owner Mike Ilitch has shown a steadfast commitment to improving the club and spending accordingly. Recent history does nothing to suggest otherwise, as the Tigers haven’t exactly shied away from plunking down large sums to attract talent. But just how desperate is the organization to get back to contender status? With the club’s already hefty payroll approaching the luxury-tax threshold, free agency should provide some clarity as to how much the team is willing to spend to avoid another letdown like 2015.
3. Wish list: At Avila’s end-of-season debriefing, he told local media he will seek two starting pitchers, either via free agency or trade. While the demand for starting pitching remains at a premium, the market may not provide the sort of depth and breadth the Tigers desire. Regardless, the club is looking for one top-of-the rotation pitcher -- the team sorely missed workhorse David Price after his trade to the Toronto Blue Jays -- and one back-of-the-rotation starter as well. Justin Verlander's resurgent second half bodes well for him returning to form as the team’s resident ace, Anibal Sanchez is expected to begin 2016 healthy and young pitching prospects like Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Michael Fulmer are expected to compete for another spot in the rotation. That leaves two spots to round out before spring training. Adding a legitimate closer remains another top priority, given concerns about Bruce Rondon’s commitment level and the lack of internal candidates for the gig (though Neftali Feliz could still get a look at some point). And while the team has been noncommittal on this, some will argue that obtaining additional help in left field is a wise idea as well.
4. Return to Motown: The Tigers made a decision for their future when they shipped out Price, reliever Joakim Soria and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline with their postseason chances growing bleak. Price and Cespedes went on to craft outstanding second halves with their respective teams, the Blue Jays and New York Mets, leaving many fans to wonder whether they’d consider returning to Detroit for another tour. Both players saw their stock rise as impending free agents, however, which could price them out of the Tigers’ budget. Cespedes told ESPN Deportes’ Marly Rivera in September that he was seeking a long-term contract of six years or more. Tony Paul of The Detroit News reported recently that the Tigers are interested in a reunion with Soria, though he is expected to have a number of options.
5. Reset for Rondon: Rondon squandered a prime opportunity in a brief audition for the closer’s role in the final weeks of the 2015 season, instead pouting his way to an abrupt dismissal. The Tigers sent him home before season’s end, citing “effort level” reasons. If Rondon wants to salvage his reputation within the organization, he needs to show an unequivocal commitment to his craft and his conditioning this offseason, starting with winter ball. Expect the Tigers to keep a close eye on the 24-year-old as they track his progress, or lack thereof.
6. Rest factor: If there is any silver lining to the Tigers’ abysmal finish and postseason miss, it is that some of their key performers will get an extended period to rest and recuperate this winter. Veterans like Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez battled through injuries this past season, and the Tigers can only hope they will be benefactors of a full offseason to recharge and reset. Other players such as Jose Iglesias (finger) and pitchers Anibal Sanchez (shoulder) and Shane Greene (pseudoaneurysm) will also be coming off season-ending injuries.
7. Young guns: Manager Brad Ausmus and the Tigers' front office got an extended look at some of the club’s bright young prospects, including shortstop Dixon Machado, who got a number of starts with Iglesias injured, and talented outfielder Steven Moya, who briefly transitioned from right to left field before his September call-up. Both players are honing their skills while playing winter ball this offseason and could compete for a spot come spring training.
8. On the mend: Promising young pitcher Daniel Norris, the top prospect acquired in the Price deal with the Blue Jays, made a shocking revelation this offseason, announcing he had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer during the 2015 season. Norris subsequently underwent surgery to remove the cancerous tumor and recently announced he was cancer-free. The Tigers, who were aware of the diagnosis when they made the trade in July, will continue to monitor the 23-year-old left-hander and hope for a speedy recovery. Assuming all is well come springtime, Norris is considered the front-runner among the club’s young arms to nail down a spot in the starting rotation.
9. New face: With the retirement of pitching coach Jeff Jones after his 38-year career, Rich Dubee joins the organization as the Tigers’ new pitching coach. Considering the club’s abysmal performance on the mound this past season -- a team ERA of 4.64 that ranked 28th in MLB -- Dubee will have his work cut out for him. The longtime Philadelphia Phillies pitching coach has already provided some insight into his philosophy, however, telling reporters after his hiring that he likes pitchers to be aggressive and pitch inside. It should be interesting to see if this preference is at all reflected in who the team decides to target once the free-agency period opens this weekend.
10. Stats savvy: One area in which the team has made a concerted push for improvement is in the analytics department. With Sam Menzin heading the group, the Tigers are putting an increased focus on gathering and evaluating advanced statistical information that can help inform decisions, both in evaluating free agency or trade candidates as well as evaluating its own personnel. The Tigers added two analytics staffers plus a pair of consultants to help in this effort and already incorporated some of the department’s work into presentations during organizational meetings last month.