The Tigers are close and eager to get closer. To take the step from division champ to pennant champ to World Series champ won’t be easy, but if you’re expecting one huge move, don’t count on it.
After winning 95 games and beating the Yankees in the playoffs, the Tigers certainly are capable of another run. Early odds on the gambling site bodog.com give the Tigers the fifth-best shot to win the 2012 World Series, along with the defending champion Cardinals at 15-1. The only four teams pegged higher: Phillies, Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers.
The Tigers need a second baseman and a third baseman, but GM Dave Dombrowski isn’t likely to make a big-money leap for either. That’s partly because there isn’t a slam-dunk free-agent available at those positions.
But you know what I would inspect really, really closely? The bullpen. The back end with Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit is set, although there’s no guarantee they’ll duplicate their hot streaks this past season.
Beyond that, lots of questions. Phil Coke will be the first lefty out of the pen, but Daniel Schlereth has to be more consistent. Ryan Perry must show better command or he could be gone. And of course, Joel Zumaya’s career still hangs by various threads in his amazingly fragile right arm.
The Tigers are pinning plenty of hopes on the recovery of right-hander Al Alburquerque, who was spectacular at times, then suffered a concussion late in the season and wasn’t the same. Dombrowski saw in the playoffs what everyone else saw, that the Cardinals won it all largely because Tony LaRussa played his bullpen like a fiddle.
It’s unrealistic to expect that in a long American League season, but the Tigers must upgrade. It should be among Dombrowski’s highest priorities, and it shouldn’t be that expensive.
Decent set-up guys are available, including the Rangers’ Mike Gonzalez and the Twins’ Matt Capps. The Tigers aren’t looking for dominance (although that’d be nice), but dependability. And finding a bullpen arm might be easier than finding a good position player.
Right now, the Tigers would go with a third-base platoon of Brandon Inge and Don Kelly, and let Wilson Betemit go. At second base? Yikes. Dombrowski clearly isn’t willing to hand the full-time job to Ramon Santiago, who may look elsewhere. And Danny Worth and Will Rhymes are utility players.
The Tigers already have their big-money stars in Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Victor Martinez. Dombrowski’s quest for the next two or three pieces — either in free-agency or trade — will determine if the Tigers truly are the long-term contender they appear to be.