DETROIT -- What was looking like a Tigers offseason for trades might yet turn out to have a little free-agent intrigue at next week's Winter Meetings.
Though the Tigers were reported to have focused on trade talks during baseball's General Managers Meetings earlier this month, they remain open to free agents. As SI.com's Jon Heyman first reported Sunday, they've inquired on third baseman Aramis Ramirez, the top of a thin crop at the hot corner. Meanwhile, the Detroit News reported Monday that the Tigers have inquired about free-agent left-hander and longtime Tigers nemesis Mark Buehrle.
There's a difference between inquiries and negotiations, and there's a long way to go before the Tigers could be considered seriously involved with either. But it at least shows the team's potential to consider some different avenues for an offensive upgrade. And with baseball's new collective bargaining agreement making it a little easier for teams to sign free agents without giving up a Draft pick as compensation, it opens up the chance the Tigers could further explore that portion of the market.
For the Tigers, who have been looking for at least one more piece to their lineup, Ramirez is an interesting fit. The club's biggest need has supposedly been for a hitter to place near the top of the order, in front of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Delmon Young. Ramirez is a classic middle-of-the-order power hitter, with six 100-RBI seasons to his credit. After two injury-shortened seasons, he rebounded for 93 RBIs to go with a .306 average and 26 home runs in 149 games this year.
With those numbers, he can add depth to a lineup that has gifted hitters in the middle of the order and run producers further down, but not necessarily depth in power. Though Cabrera posted his fifth straight 30-homer season on his way to his first batting crown with a .344 average, the Tigers finished in the middle of the pack among American League teams with 169 home runs. Three other AL playoff teams and two teams in the NL postseason finished with more.
The 33-year-old Ramirez is also a .299 hitter with runners in scoring position over his 14-year career.
The Tigers return Brandon Inge for 2012, the back half of the two-year contract he signed last fall, and team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski has mentioned Inge in a possible platoon with super utilityman Don Kelly. All the while, though, the Tigers have remained open to an offensive upgrade.
"Second base and third base are probably the two areas that will get the most of our attention," Dombrowski said a few weeks ago. "Those are two areas, where if you talk about getting better, we can get better production at those spots. Now we could platoon at one of those two spots, and sometimes when you talk about the players we have on our club -- you can never have enough good players, but you don't want all star players. You want some of those gritty role-type players."
Dombrowski has said more than once that the Tigers would most likely not be major suitors for the expected high-priced free agents, such as Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins. If interest wanes on top players like Ramirez, however, that stance could change with the chance at a relative bargain.
From a pure pitching standpoint, Buehrle fits the profile of the kind of hurler that could fill out Detroit's all-righty rotation. He's arguably a standard for consistency and durability, with 11 straight 200-inning seasons and four straight years with at least 13 wins. This year marked his first full big league season without a complete game. For more advanced statistics, his Wins Above Replacement has been at 3.4 or better in 10 of his 11 full Major League seasons.
Despite a lengthy, accomplished resume that reminds some of former Tiger Kenny Rogers, Buehrle is young in pitching age, with his 33rd birthday coming up next March. For that reason, he could draw a lucrative long-term contract from any of the numerous teams expressing interest in him.
That list of interested teams already looks long -- more than a dozen, according to Jim Bowden of MLB Network Radio. The Marlins reportedly wined and dined Buehrle in Miami to give him a look at their new ballpark, while Nationals officials supposedly visited Buehrle at his home in St. Louis last week.
Combine interest, age and demand, and the potential is high for a bidding war. If that happens, the Tigers will eventually have to decide how far they're willing to pursue Buehrle.
Dombrowski said in his end-of-season remarks that the team would likely go to camp with a competition for the fifth starter spot among their young arms and a veteran insurance starter. However, he also said they'd be open to pursuing a "great starting pitcher" if he was available for them and the move made sense.
In terms of starting pitching and short-term deals, Dombrowski said Monday, "Our situation has not changed in that regard."