DETROIT -- Dave Dombrowski made the kinds of summer deals most general managers dream about. It didn't get him and the Tigers to the World Series, but it leaves him with a lot less to do this winter to gear up for another run.
It isn't so much less that they're going to sit on the sidelines this winter and watch the rest of baseball duke it out on free agents and trades, but it's enough that they can focus their efforts on one or two things that they really need in order to take the next step as a franchise.
If top prospect Jacob Turner cracks the rotation, the Tigers will have five starters under team control for at least the next three years, thanks in no small part to the arrival of Doug Fister, who is not even eligible for arbitration until next winter. Detroit's late-inning and setup relief is set for next year once they pick up closer Jose Valverde's option year.
The Tigers' middle of the batting order, second through fifth, is all but set for next season, assuming that they tender a contract to the arbitration-eligible Delmon Young in his final year before free agency. Their outfield is set, with Young and Brennan Boesch returning alongside Austin Jackson, giving the Tigers three starting outfielders age 26 or younger.
They return the reigning Major League batting champion in Miguel Cabrera, the American League pitching triple crown winner in Justin Verlander and the reigning Delivery Man of the Year, Valverde, at closer. Their three potential free-agent losses are all well into their 30s, and their departure would take more than $26 million off what was about a $106 million payroll this season.
How's that for a foundation? It's better than what they carried over from their World Series team in 2006, and it gave Dombrowski something to look forward to as he lamented the club's AL Championship Series loss last weekend.
"In 2006, we had a solid foundation -- probably not as solid as this going forward, though," Dombrowski said. "I mean, we have a real good young group of core players that are in their prime. We also know how fragile the game is as far as injuries are concerned and performances are concerned. If you tell me we'd stay healthy next year, I think we'll have a good club.
"We'll do some fine-tuning, I'm sure, try to get a little bit better. No, you're not satisfied by any means, but I do think we're in a position where you don't have to go out and make a bunch of huge moves, because your foundation's there."
Anything the Tigers do this offseason will have the purpose of complementing that foundation. Considering there isn't a particularly deep free-agent market, it's a good time to be looking to complement rather than build, whether at leadoff hitter, second base or third base.
That said, owner Mike Ilitch might have something bigger in mind, or at least be open to it.
"I want to be in a position to make one or two additions," Ilitch told Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski last month, "and generally, they're pretty big additions."
That quote resonates in Detroit, where there's some anticipation as to what the Tigers could do.
If they can find a hitter to put in the leadoff or second spot, and produce more RBI opportunities for Cabrera and Victor Martinez, that would be big. The most potent leadoff man on the market, Mets speedster Jose Reyes, is far from a complementary piece. He would be a very big addition, with a very big price tag.
The Tigers don't need a shortstop; they have a pretty good one already with Jhonny Peralta. But they could use a spark in the lineup. It would take quite a bit of maneuvering to make Reyes that spark, including a shift for Peralta. If Reyes is looking for a Carl Crawford type of contract, as some have suggested, he won't get it from Detroit. If Reyes is looking to stay with the Mets, as others have predicted, nobody with the Tigers will convince him otherwise.
Jimmy Rollins is another speedy shortstop from the National League East set to test free agency, but he turns 33 in late November, and he hasn't had an on-base percentage over .340 since 2008.
If the Tigers seek an offensive upgrade at third, there's Aramis Ramirez, the top third baseman on the market. A former Pirate, Ramirez knows Tigers bench coach Gene Lamont and hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, both former Bucs managers. Ramirez's bat would serve to extend the middle of the order, not top it.
The market for third basemen drops quite a bit from there. The market for second basemen doesn't even have a clear-cut top target. It's the type of field that could prompt the Tigers to explore the trade market first if they want it badly enough. That could especially apply to relief pitching, as Detroit could use a proven right-hander for a seventh-inning option.
They don't have to be forced into something, especially a bad contract, but they can pounce on an opportunity. Those are usually the situations in which Dombrowski has managed to shine.
"It's a good situation to be in," Dombrowski said of their foundation. "I mean, you'd rather be like that. But I also think you're going to do things to try to get better, too. ... A fine line separates clubs, so when you start getting content where you are, that can come back and haunt you. So that's not where we're going to be. I think we're going to be in a position where we'll look to get better."
Free agents: IF Carlos Guillen, RF Magglio Ordonez, RHP Brad Penny, IF Ramon Santiago, RHP Valverde (club option)
Eligible for arbitration: LHP Phil Coke, IF/OF Don Kelly, RHP Rick Porcello, RHP Max Scherzer, LHP Brad Thomas, OF Young
A position-by-position look at where the 2011 roster stands going into 2012:
Catcher: Despite all of the bumps and bruises over the course the season, both regular and postseason, Alex Avila expects to be fine for next spring without offseason surgery. His return gives the Tigers their best stability at catcher since they traded Ivan Rodriguez, and their best young catcher since Lance Parrish nearly 30 years ago. The question now is how to back up the young All-Star. Detroit got through a season with Martinez as the primary designated hitter and second catcher, but after a cornucopia of injuries left Martinez hobbled in October, it's highly unlikely the Tigers are going to let him catch much again. So for Avila's own good, the Tigers have to look for a backup who can catch at least 30 games without much dropoff defensively. A good example might be former Tiger Gerald Laird, who went to the Cardinals and skillfully served as Yadier Molina's understudy.
First base: Cabrera is halfway through the eight-year, $152.3 million contract extension he signed soon after the Tigers traded for him, and by big league standards, he has earned every penny. Coming up on his 29th birthday, he's one of the most dangerous hitters in the game, and he has embraced first base well enough that the Tigers see him as one of the more underrated defenders in the AL. He'll have to watch his weight as he nears 30, but for somebody his size, he has no serious health issues. He could feasibly get a few more days at DH to get Martinez some days in the field.
Second base: The Tigers went through five -- count them, five -- starters here last year, including an Opening Day fielder who was optioned to Triple-A Toledo less than 4 1/2 weeks later (Will Rhymes) and replaced by a prospect who was traded 3 1/2 weeks after that (Scott Sizemore). Detroit has been unsettled at second since letting Placido Polanco walk after 2009. They would love to settle on somebody, but a look at the market shows how tough that might be. They could re-sign Ramon Santiago, who took the bulk of the work down the stretch, but up to this point, they've never seen him as a full-time starter, and he should have his pick of situations as a free agent. They could let Ryan Raburn focus on second full-time, since he's under contract, but his previous chances at full-time play didn't go as hoped. With the slick-fielding Danny Worth and Brandon Douglas the only prospects on the horizon, this could be a situation resolved with a trade.
Shortstop: Peralta led AL shortstops in batting average and OPS, but his biggest surprise was a .988 fielding percentage that nearly led the league. With his 30th birthday coming up in May, there's no reason to think he doesn't have another standout season in him. The Tigers could conceivably decide it's worth moving him back to third base for an all-out run at Reyes or Rollins, but given the comfort level Peralta developed at short, it would probably take something that earth-shattering to unseat him.
Third base: Brandon Inge is under contract next season for $5.5 million. Whether he's starting is an entirely different question. This could be the most intriguing offseason decision for Detroit, more so than the move to designate him for assignment last summer. Inge batted .278 with a .799 OPS after returning in August from his Triple-A exile, but that came in limited starts and more games as a late-inning defensive replacement. His temporary replacement, Wilson Betemit, is unlikely to return after mixed results down the stretch and a spot on the bench for the playoffs.
Though Inge chose to stay in the organization after being designated in July, it's unlikely he'll want to stick around as a utility player for a full season if he can help it. Don Kelly can play third, but his versatility makes him more valuable in a utility role. If the Tigers see a chance to upgrade, Inge's contract probably won't hamstring them.
Outfield: Assuming the Tigers hold on to Young for his final year of arbitration before free agency -- and there's every reason to believe they will -- the Tigers could go into the offseason with their outfield already set, even as Ordonez faces an uncertain future following a re-fractured ankle. Boesch, lost for the stretch run with a torn ligament in his right thumb, should be good as new by the start of Spring Training and set to take over in right field. Young will have a contract year to try to set his value for the Tigers or another team as he tries to translate his comfort level in Detroit into full-season production.
Then there's Jackson, who will be trying to rebound from a struggling sophomore year at the plate to show that his stellar rookie numbers from 2010 weren't a fluke. If the Tigers add a leadoff hitter, Jackson will hit lower in the order. If Raburn isn't manning second base, he'll likely be mixed in as a fourth outfielder.
DH: Whether Martinez was the free-agent signing of the year depends in part on your view of Texas' Adrian Beltre, but it's indisputable that Martinez was the addition that propelled the Tigers back to the postseason. The fact that he drove in 103 runs with just 12 home runs on his stat sheet says plenty about his value moving forward, a run producer whether or not his power stays away. As long as he stays healthy -- and he isn't likely to catch much going forward in order to remain so -- he should have no problem approaching 100 RBIs again with a batting average well into the .300s.
Rotation: Not only did Detroit's Trade Deadline deal for Fister help seal the AL Central title down the stretch, it put the Tigers in position to potentially set their rotation for the long term. Add Fister to a pitching lineup of Verlander, Scherzer and Porcello, and the Tigers have at least four members of their rotation under team control for the next three years. Porcello faces questions about his long-term future, but his postseason performance answered some of those. If top prospect Turner wins the fifth rotation spot and replaces free agent Penny, he'll make it five starters locked up long-term, leaving the Tigers as happy outsiders on the pitching market. As it is, they'll still probably look for a veteran arm to at least compete for the fifth spot and buy time while Turner continues to mature, but the future of Tigers pitching is clearly on the horizon if they want it. Lefties Andy Oliver and Drew Smyly serve as extra starters while learning at Triple-A Toledo and Double-A Erie, respectively. So could David Pauley, who was an occasional starter in Seattle before his trade to Detroit.
Bullpen: That club option on closer Valverde for 2012 at $9 million looked like a potential conundrum going into the season, given the three-year contract for potential closer-in-waiting Joaquin Benoit. But after 52 saves in 52 chances between the regular season and playoffs, it's not looking like much of a decision now. And Valverde and Benoit are looking like a late-inning-lead lockdown duo for another season. The middle relief corps that would help carry leads through the seventh inning to Benoit is another issue. Coke's late-season success sets him as the primary lefty alongside Daniel Schlereth, but the Tigers have to figure out a right-handed middle man, which is where their lack of depth killed them in the ALCS. If they can count on Al Alburquerque staying healthy, he's the guy. If not, their other option is former first-rounder Ryan Perry, whose inconsistencies have lingered for the last two years.