Tigers' biggest needs: bottom of order, back of bullpen

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

Watching the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 World Series was like looking at a rerun of 2006.
Team sweeps rival in American League Championship Series, team sits around a week waiting for the National League to wrap up, team looks pitifully weak while getting beat up in the World Series.
The differences were the opponents -- St. Louis in 2006 and San Francisco this year -- and the fact that the ouster was a sweep in 2012 whereas in 2006 it took five games to end the World Series.
The same problems that kept the Tigers from matching preseason predictions of awesomeness plagued them once they swept the New York Yankees in the ALCS. The bottom part of the batting order didn't hit beans and the top half wasn't able to offset that deficiency with the same kind of production it sustained during the regular season.
The club seriously needs to shore up its corner outfield spots with more athletic players who can drive in runs. It appears Andy Dirks will take one of the spots, but relying on rookie Avisail Garcia, even though he was impressive after joining the team Aug. 31, might be a bit of a stretch for a team that also needs more run production from its catcher and its shortstop.
In addition, the Tigers could use one, maybe two, fresh arms in the bullpen and will have to make a decision on where to get a new closer to replace Jose Valverde, whose three atrocious postseason appearances will make it easy for the club to let him depart as a free agent.
Closer possibilities exist within the organization and that is something the front office will discuss, knowing it can make a midseason correction if necessary. Rookie Bruce Rondon, sized like a refrigerator with arms and legs and a triple-digit fastball that chills batters, will get a long look in spring training and seems likely to make the club in some role.
While the club is shedding some salaries from this year, it will be forking over a lot of money to its arbitration-eligibles, such as Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Doug Fister, Phil Coke, Austin Jackson and Alex Avila.
Delmon Young will be allowed to depart as a free agent. His two strong postseasons did not offset his defensive liabilities or the way he gave away at-bats in bunches during the regular season, providing very little protection for cleanup hitter Prince Fielder.
The return of Victor Martinez, who missed the season with a left knee injury, provides a ready replacement for Young as the club's DH. Martinez won't catch anymore and probably won't see much action at first base.
The Tigers would like to have Gerald Laird back to spell Avila, and it would seem like a good fit for both sides.
The key free agent Detroit would like to keep but probably can't afford is Anibal Sanchez, who struggled in his first four starts after changing leagues but was strong down the stretch. Even that loss wouldn't be critical because the Tigers have to find room for Drew Smyly in a rotation devoid of lefties.
The rotation will still star Justin Verlander, with Scherzer pushing him as a guy who would be an ace on most other teams. Fister is solid in the middle of the rotation and Rick Porcello needs only to sharpen his changeup and settle on either a slider or curve as his other secondary pitch to return to winning 14 games or more.
Jackson eliminated his leg kick this year and rebounded from a sophomore slump. He's a Gold Glove-caliber defender and one of the better leadoff hitters in baseball. Jackson is one of Detroit's better hitters with runners in scoring position and would help the bottom of the order -- but only if the Tigers can find a leadoff hitter to replace him.
Miguel Cabrera became the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years and looked much better in his return to third base than anybody imagined in the spring. He made the switch to accommodate Fielder, signed after Martinez hurt his knee working out in the winter.
The Tigers definitely need a more athletic shortstop but are likely to pick up the $6 million option on Jhonny Peralta because of his reliability and the fact any defensive whiz they could get to replace him would probably entail a serious offensive falloff.
Avila had a poor year with the bat compared to his All-Star 2011 season, but much of that has to do with his knees causing him problems, something he plans to overcome this winter.
Omar Infante settled down an awful second base problem for Detroit after coming up from Miami with Sanchez in a July 23 trade.
Detroit is not a team in need of a drastic overhaul to return to the World Series. Some tinkering is in order, though, because watching the 5-9 hitters struggle on a seemingly nightly basis is not something the front office, manager and coaches want to go through again.
The Tigers lost games because of their defense during the regular season, but it didn't hurt them that much in the postseason. Better corner outfielders would help, though.
The preparation for next season will begin the day the club announces whether Jim Leyland is returning as manager for next season, expected to be soon. The holdup there could be a hassle over the return of some of his coaching buddies.

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