NOAH TRISTER, AP Baseball Writer
DETROIT (AP) — When the Detroit Tigers introduced new closer Joe Nathan this week, the news conference quickly became about a lot more than Joe Nathan.
How active will the Tigers be in free agency for the rest of this offseason? Did they get enough in return for Doug Fister? Could Detroit now be in a position to sign Max Scherzer to a long-term deal?
And, more generally: Is this team in a better position to contend for a World Series than it was before?
“Well, I can’t say ‘better,'” general manager Dave Dombrowski said Wednesday. “But I can also say ‘as good.’ This club has a chance to win the championship.”
That’s all a baseball executive can do — give his team a chance to win a title. But after three years of aggressive spending, the Tigers may not be in a position to keep adding expensive stars to the roster. In fact, Detroit’s offseason so far seems to underscore how hard it is to keep a talented team together as top players approach free agency.
“You couldn’t have the Big Red Machine in today’s game,” Dombrowski said, referring to the great Cincinnati teams of the 1970s. “Maybe the Yankees could, but I don’t even know if the Yankees could. The game has changed.”
The Tigers finished last season with a payroll around $150 million. They signed Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit to big deals before the 2011 season, then added Prince Fielder — and an even bigger contract — about a year later.
Last offseason, Detroit signed Torii Hunter and brought back right-hander Anibal Sanchez, who had become a free agent. The Tigers also signed ace Justin Verlander to a $180 million, seven-year deal to prevent him from becoming a free agent after next season.
How much spending is too much? Dombrowski hasn’t been specific, and he’s quick to point out that Detroit has had and should continue to have one of the game’s highest payrolls under owner Mike Ilitch.
“I never want to say anything about finances here. If people don’t know by now what a generous owner we have — it’s unbelievable,” Dombrowski said. “But you still have to have some consideration, because you can’t sign all the best players.”
The Tigers traded Fielder for Ian Kinsler earlier this offseason, giving themselves more financial flexibility for both the short and long term. They also traded Fister, a dependable right-hander, to the Nationals for pitching prospect Robbie Ray, left-handed reliever Ian Krol and backup infielder Steve Lombardozzi.
Detroit signed Nathan to a two-year deal worth $20 million in guaranteed money. He’ll make $19 million over the two years, then receive either a $10 million club option for 2016 or a $1 million buyout.
But while introducing Nathan, Dombrowski indicated he didn’t think the Tigers would be involved in any major free agent signings during the rest of this offseason. That was a bit startling, considering how active Detroit has been in recent years.
Dombrowski did leave the door open to the possibility of a long-term contract for Scherzer, who won the American League Cy Young Award this year and will be a free agent after next season. If Scherzer does sign a deal that keeps him in Detroit for several years, it might explain some of the Tigers’ other cost-conscious decisions this offseason.
For now, Detroit fans may have to settle for having, as Dombrowski put it, “as good” a team as last season. There’s nothing wrong with that. The Tigers won 93 games in 2013 for their third straight AL Central title. Win that many again, and Detroit has a good chance to be back in the postseason, where its starting pitching is certainly formidable enough for a deep run.
But it’s fair to wonder where all these moves leave the Tigers. Kinsler replaces free agent Omar Infante at second base, and Nathan replaces Benoit — another free agent — as the closer. Krol could help fill left-hander Drew Smyly’s role in the bullpen, since Smyly will replace Fister in the rotation.
Miguel Cabrera will move from third base to first now that Fielder is gone, while top prospect Nick Castellanos steps in at third. That still leaves left field as a spot for a potential upgrade, and a free agent like Shin-Soo Choo or Carlos Beltran would probably fit well.
But if the Tigers don’t make a run at either of those players — and they’ve been capable of surprises in the past — it remains to be seen whether they’ll be able to replace the power provided by Fielder and Jhonny Peralta, who left via free agency.
Detroit can expect improvement defensively and on the basepaths, but after years of spending big and adding players, Dombrowski and the Tigers seem to face a different type of challenge this offseason, trying to keep a World Series-caliber team in contention while remaining cognizant of the future and any financial constraints that exist.
“We’re trying to win a championship, but I do think you have to balance,” Dombrowski said. “If you blink, and you’ve got seven free agents at one time, and you don’t have any plan for it, that’s not real smart either. I think you’re trying to win now — and we are — and I would sacrifice the future for the present. But you still have to be aware of those type of things too.”
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