Losing the World Series was the best thing that could have happened to the Tigers.
OK, that's not true. In fact, it's hard to think of a franchise whose self-identity would have been transformed more by a championship. Nevertheless, the devastating loss to the Cardinals should serve as notice to GM Dave Dombrowski that the Tigers still have work to do if they want to play with the big boys. Here are three things the Tigers can do this winter to ensure that they aren't one-hit wonders:
Break the bank for a big first baseman The underlying dynamics are as follows. Reaching the playoffs can produce an economic windfall that is nearly as profound as the competitive one. The Tigers improved their attendance by 28 percent this season, before accounting for the additional butts they put in the seats at Comerica Park during the playoffs. And the team also stands to be in a position of power when negotiating its television and radio contracts. That bubble could burst, however, if the Tigers regress back to being an afterthought.
Indeed, the playoffs are hardly assured for the Tigers next season. They have the misfortune of playing in the best division in baseball -- not only will the White Sox and Twins be hungry, but the Indians also retain one of the most impressive talent cores. And while there weren't too many individual performances among the Detroit roster that screamed "fluke" -- Kenny Rogers' resurgence being one probable exception -- it's a general rule of thumb that a 95-win baseball club has more room to go down than up. The White Sox didn't expect Mark Buehrle to implode last year, for Scott Podsednik to post a .330 OBP, for their bullpen to go from being an asset to a liability, and they dropped nine games in the standings in spite of having added talent.
So the Tigers need to be willing to spend some money, and with all of the team's key assets signed through at least next season, there are only so many places at which they might do it. Ivan Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, who have the team's largest contracts, aren't going anywhere. Curtis Granderson and Brandon Inge, though their warts were exposed in the World Series, are cheap, productive players in the prime of their careers. There's no reason to displace the middle infield tandem of Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco. And as many times as you can say that "you can never have too much pitching," the Tigers will return all four of their postseason starters next season, plus Mike Maroth, who should be fully recovered from elbow surgery, 24-year-old upstart Zach Miner, and top-rated rookie Andrew Miller. Nor should the bullpen present any problems.
That leaves the jobs at the offense-first positions of first base, left field, and designated hitter. The Tigers could re-sign first baseman Sean Casey, who was one of their few bright spots during the World Series, but they need more production out of the position. Fortunately, there are a couple of very attractive fits in the free agent market. Nomar Garciaparra is the first. The second-toughest man in the National League to strike out last season, Garciaparra would provide some respite from the Tigers' hack-happy ways, allowing them to remain feisty against all different sorts of pitchers. The .300-plus batting average and 20-plus home runs they could expect from Nomar wouldn't hurt either.
Option 1-A is Carlos Lee. Contrary to his reputation, Lee is also a tough out, having struck out just 65 times last season in spite of his 37 home runs -- the only major leaguer with more home runs and fewer strikeouts was Albert Pujols. Lee would have to switch positions, but considering that his left-field defense leaves much to be desired, a shift to first base might be overdue anyway.
The Tigers already lean heavily right-handed, and both Lee and Garciaparra would compound that problem, but this is not something the Tigers should spend a lot of time worrying about. There's an awful lot of left-handed pitching in the AL Central, from Buehrle to Johan Santana to Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia. Besides that, we've got another solution in mind for the lefty problem:
Sign Barry Bonds At first glance, it seems like the strangest possible fit: the one-man sideshow that is Bonds and the aspirational, team-oriented Tigers. But probe a little bit deeper, and the scenario makes a lot of sense.
The Tigers need a hitter like Bonds. For all the talk of the empty shell that is Bonds without his chemical enhancements, he led baseball with a .454 OBP last season. And if Bonds' power is so depleted, why did he have more intentional walks last season (39) than Ryan Howard (38)? Bonds can't play every day, but that's OK for the Tigers, who can take advantage of their depth and rotate him with Marcus Thames and Craig Monroe through the DH and left-field slots. They can even consider using Bonds as their leadoff hitter if Granderson can't improve his pitch recognition skills.
Just as importantly, Bonds needs a team like the Tigers. He'd be reunited with his first manager, Jim Leyland. He'd steer clear of the frenzied media environments on the East and West coasts. And he'd have the chance to win a World Series, which could go a long way toward rehabilitating his reputation.
Surely, the Tigers would take some risk in bringing on Bonds. But this is a team that should be looking to take risks; the AL Central is the wrong division in which to play it safe. And the competitive and reputational risks that Bonds presents should be priced into his contract: the Tigers might well be able to sign both Bonds and Garciaparra for less than the annual salary they'd need to pay to Alfonso Soriano. Bonds will be looking for a one-year contract, which means that the Tigers can wash their hands of him whatever happens in 2007.
Besides, methinks the Tigers could use a little growl ...
No More Mr. Nice Guy This means a couple of different things. It means Leyland needs to quit worrying about bruising egos, whether in making the long overdue move of giving the closer's job to Joel Zumaya, or in waking the Tigers up early for an extra round of pitchers fielding practice. But it also means that the Tigers could afford to play with just a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. One of Leyland's most effective moments during the season was when he tore into the Tigers, who were already exceeding expectations with a 7-6 record, following a blowout loss to the Indians on April 17. The Tigers responded by winning 28 of their next 36 games. If the Tigers had displayed the same fire after the Game 3 loss to the Cardinals, than perhaps the World Series result would have been different.
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