By Marc Normandin
The Tigers are in the American League Championship Series for the third straight year, and have a chance to make it to the World Series for the second year in a row. Behind a pair of exceptional building blocks in Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers have gone all out in trades and free agent signings to complement the duo while they are still in their peaks in order to bring a championship to Detroit -- which, despite the recent success, they haven't done since Sparky Anderson's memorable 1984 club. As they face off against the Red Sox, though, it's fair to wonder just how many more chances the Tigers are going to have to succeed at their goal.
Don't take this to mean it's all luck that has brought the Tigers to this point: It's exactly the opposite, as this is a talented roster that, in spite of underachieving players and injuries, is in the Junior Circuit's championship round. Verlander, Cabrera, and the rest aren't going to be at their peaks forever, though, even if they seem to be signed for that amount of time, and the components that assist them in this quest are similarly running on a time of one sort or another.
Take a look at the vaunted rotation. Verlander is there through 2019 with a $22 million vesting option for 2020 -- he could potentially make another $182 million from the Tigers in that stretch, with an average annual value of $25.7 million. While he's been phenomenal in the playoffs, he showed some signs of wear during the regular season, finishing with just (well, okay, "just" at least in Verlander terms) 218 innings and a 121 ERA+ that, while great, wasn't quite Best In The World levels like his previous two campaigns.
Verlander still has life left in him, as evidenced by his playoff performance, but the day will come when he's unable to keep on rebounding, as is the way with pitchers. He'll be 31 in 2014, with nearly 1,900 major-league innings on his arm between the regular and postseason -- at some point, his performance will likely diminish, unless he's the spiritual successor to the likes of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. There aren't very many of those guys in history.
After that, they have Anibal Sanchez in town through 2017, with an option for 2018. Sanchez led the American League with a 163 ERA+, but let's step back for a moment and remember that, prior to 2013, the 29-year-old right-hander's best full campaign came with an 117 ERA+ attached. He's also failed to ever throw 200 innings in a season, and posted a 110 ERA+ from 2009 through 2012. He could very well have found a new level of success, but this could also be a one-off -- you can't guarantee a league-leading ERA year after year from Sanchez. It might be easier to believe Max Scherzer can replicate his campaign, given the level of his stuff and how long he's teased himself to be the ace-level pitcher he's been this year, but Scherzer's 2014 might also be his final year in Detroit: He's a free agent after the season. Doug Fister is similarly on his original MLB contract, and is set to be a free agent following the 2015 season.
The Tigers could likely pop Drew Smyly in to replace Scherzer, should he depart as a free agent or via trade, but Smyly wasn't a top-tier prospect expected to put up workhorse innings totals and ace-like numbers -- he projected to be a number three starter, tops, with potential to be closer to a back-end arm. Not bad, but not Scherzer, either -- not even Fister, really. They drafted Jonathon Crawford in the first round of the 2013 draft, but he's 21 years old with just a dash of pro experience to his credit, and there are scouts who still think he's a reliever long-term -- there's no guaranteed help here, either. As it stands, the Tigers would need to find some pitching help through trades or free agency, but just with what they've got on hand, 2014 seems like the last best chance for this particular rotation, as it features Verlander before he puts much more mileage on his arm, Sanchez coming off of his greatest year, Fister still doing his productive thing, and Scherzer finally making the leap. There's either Smyly or Rick Porcello for the fifth spot, too, but with that front four, it hardly matters which steps in, so long as they have both in case of emergency.
The lineup gives off a similar vibe, timing-wise, of when things need to get done by. Fielder is around through 2020, but no one else of import is around for nearly that long. Miguel Cabrera is a free agent after 2015, and will be 33 when the 2016 season begins. He'll likely still be excellent at that age, but look no further than Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton for evidence of how quickly everything can fall apart for even the game's most amazing sluggers. Victor Martinez's deal runs through 2014, and he'll be a former catcher only useful at designated hitter, heading into his age-36 season, should he renew. Torii Hunter's two-year pact also runs out after 2014, and he'll be 39 for 2015. Omar Infante is a free agent after this year, and will be 32 for 2014: It's difficult to know just when time will run out for a second baseman, so whether it's Infante or a free agent replacement, there could be questions for anything beyond a short-term pact.
Jhonny Peralta is a free agent, and while no one will miss his defense thanks to July trade acquisition Jose Iglesias, losing his bat in a lineup that is already a bit top-heavy could be problematic, especially if Iglesias looks like the hitter he was while in Detroit (.259/.306/.348) rather than his final season line (.303/.349/.386). Austin Jackson is around through 2015 with Cabrera, as is backstop Alex Avila.
Let's not forget the bullpen, either: Joaquin Benoit, the only consistently reliable piece out there besides Smyly in 2013, is a free agent after this season. The Tigers can certainly re-sign him, but he'll cost them, which could be problematic only if the Tigers have a budget ceiling in mind. Having Bruce Rondon around full-time should help, but that's an area where the Tigers could use some upgrades, in addition to left field.
It's pretty obvious, given just who is in town and for how much, that 2014 is the Tigers' next-best chance -- should 2013 not turn out to be a success -- to win a World Series. They'll still have the complete set of amazing starters, and the lineup will include all of their current best bats. The 2015 season looks pretty good, too, but without Scherzer, Martinez, and Hunter, and without knowing just who their replacements will be, it's difficult to say just what the Tigers will look like, and what will be expected of them.
Of course, replacements are the key to the whole thing. If the Tigers continue to deal the prospects they do have for quality players like Sanchez, and are able to find other building blocks and complementary pieces through signings and the draft, then they might only step back for a year, if even that. If Verlander and Cabrera not only stick around, but continue to produce at a high-caliber, Cooperstown level, then there is also less concern for the future, and a much wider window for success available. It's difficult to know just how things will go down, though, so, in many ways, it's now or... okay, not never. But soon.