DETROIT (AP) – Moments after the Detroit Tigers were eliminated from the AL championship series, Alex Avila was already looking forward to the future.
The Detroit catcher figures his team will have every opportunity to return to the postseason next year. The Tigers won the AL Central by 15 games this season and have a nucleus that includes Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and a number of other key contributors who are expected back in 2012.
“We’ve got a good core of guys,” Avila said. “The starting rotation is good. There are a lot of young guys who’ve got good experience from this season. Our team is set up well for next year.”
Detroit beat the New York Yankees in the division series before falling to Texas in the ALCS, unable to contain the Rangers in a 15-5 loss in the clinching Game 6 on Saturday night.
The Tigers were a team built to contend this season, and new additions Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit made valuable contributions all year long. Detroit pulled away from the rest of the AL Central during a 12-game September winning streak. Verlander won 24 games and could take both the Cy Young and MVP awards. Cabrera won the batting title.
It was Detroit’s first division title since winning the AL East in 1987, but the Tigers couldn’t quite match their postseason success of 2006, when they represented the American League in the World Series as a wild card.
“I’m not going to go into the offseason disappointed at all,” manager Jim Leyland said. “This team gave every single thing they had, every ounce of energy. I just couldn’t be prouder of them.”
Verlander led the AL in wins, ERA and strikeouts, and Cabrera hit .344 with 30 homers and 105 RBIs. Martinez, the team’s new designated hitter, hit a career-high .330 and drove in 103 runs.
Closer Jose Valverde didn’t blow a save opportunity all year.
With Verlander and Cabrera in the fold, Detroit should be able to contend for a postseason spot again next year. In fact, starting pitchers Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello are all under 30 years old. Brad Penny was pitching on a one-year contract this year, and the Tigers may try to move prospect Jacob Turner into the rotation.
The Tigers will have a few decisions to make. Outfielder Magglio Ordonez and second baseman Carlos Guillen made a combined $23 million this season, but neither was healthy enough to contribute much and it’s possible they won’t be back.
Detroit hopes to have outfielder Brennan Boesch healthy, after his 16-homer season was cut short by an injured thumb. Second base and third base are spots with more uncertainty. Detroit acquired third baseman Wilson Betemit at midseason, but he appeared to fall out of favor during the playoffs. Ryan Raburn, Ramon Santiago, Guillen and Will Rhymes all started at least 22 games at second.
Austin Jackson has been the team’s regular center fielder for two years, and he has good range in Comerica Park’s spacious outfield. But he had only a .317 on-base percentage in 2011 and was sometimes a liability as the team’s leadoff hitter.
Jackson was one of few threats the Tigers had on the bases, stealing 22 in 27 attempts.
Avila was perhaps the team’s most encouraging surprise this year, hitting .295 with 19 homers during the regular season. He struggled during the playoffs while playing hurt, highlighting the need for Detroit to carry a dependable backup catcher who can allow Avila to rest on occasion. Martinez was able to spell him behind the plate for a while, but he too had injury problems that made it tough for him to catch.
“It was tough and we had a long grind,” Leyland said. “Unfortunately, we have a long time to rest up, about 10 days or so more than I would have liked, but we’ll come back to spring training and get back to work.”
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