Brad Ausmus, meet your new team.
The Tigers are holding their annual locked-door autumn conference this week as they move toward next season and nearer, they hope, to winning a World Series.
These were meetings that could not begin until front-office boss Dave Dombrowski had his new manager in place, which he accomplished last weekend when Ausmus was named to replace Jim Leyland.
At that point, a crash course in Tigers roster realities began for Ausmus, who spent the past three years working at Padres headquarters. Ausmus will have his own thoughts on team construction: on the role of speed and defense in his lineup; on the proper blend of youth and seasoned talent; on bullpen makeup and having, perhaps, a left-handed option such as Drew Smyly in his rotation versus five right-handers.
From conversations with Ausmus and Dombrowski’s lieutenants, Dombrowski will add input from coaching, developmental and scouting staffs. And then he will get busy upgrading a 25-man roster that, for all its muscle, had soft spots that might have cost the Tigers a second consecutive World Series ticket.
Two everyday positions are in need of direct attention. Pitching issues are broader and more nuanced as they apply to Ausmus’ rotation and to more acute challenges in Detroit’s bullpen.
Dombrowski will want to get started by re-crafting a lineup Ausmus understands is power-laden but a bit clumsy in its run-producing options.
Second base: To sign or not to sign Omar Infante
This depends, in part, on how the Tigers handle that other everyday concern, left field. But the basic choices are clear at an essential up-the-middle position.
Dombrowski can take a shot at signing Infante, who is a free agent after the Tigers decided against making him a $14.1 million qualifying offer for 2014.
Or, despite groans from fans who don’t believe he ever will hit, the Tigers could decide Hernan Perez, 22, is ready for Opening Day. Dombrowski and his staffers — at least most of them — believe Perez, in time, will be a capable hitter. They also love his speed and defense.
But they might be reluctant to make Perez their man when another young and, to date, light hitter will be working regularly at shortstop: Jose Iglesias.
On one hand, a manager with a National League background might see in Iglesias and Perez the brand of defense that comforts pitchers, as would buttoned-down skippers who believe you most often win with pitching and with defenders who make plays.
But the Tigers more often got into trouble last season when they failed to deliver consistent offense from positions that demand solid everyday bats. Second base was never an issue with Infante. It could become a problem if Perez proves he isn’t yet ready for full-time work.
The Tigers weren’t interested in spending excessively on one year of Infante. But they could tempt him with a multi-year package that secures second base for 2014 at the same time it offers them a potentially valuable trade chip.
Left field: Target for an upcoming trade?
It was all but etched into Comerica Park’s brickwork last summer that Nick Castellanos would begin next season as the new left fielder.
Now, the Tigers aren’t so sure.
It has nothing to do with Castellanos being devalued. He is still considered, at all of 21, to be a probable middle-of-the-order hitter as he matures. He is expected eventually to land at his old home, third base, which will make that mid-order bat even more valuable relative to position.
But the Tigers know their prowess and their perils heading into 2014. They are slow through too many spots in their lineup. And when that speed deficit also shows up in left field, particularly in a left field as vast as Comerica Park’s, there is a price to pay.
Andy Dirks could always arrive at spring camp, bat up a storm, and settle in as the everyday choice the Tigers had hoped he would become. Dirks was a Gold Glove finalist last season but never seemed to get past a March knee bruise that seemingly restricted his swing and deadened his offense.
Dombrowski, though, might decide to pull his annual big trade this autumn or during the Winter Meetings (Dec. 9-12 in Orlando, Fla.) and to make left field his mission.
If so, Castellanos might become a royal-blue trade chip. In terms of a third baseman, post-Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers would at least temporarily be stuck. But they have in their farm system a sudden glut of highly regarded middle infielders (Eugenio Suarez, Devon Travis, Harold Castro, Steven Fuentes, Javier Betancourt). One of those prospects might be moving to third base in the event Castellanos relocates, all in an effort to swing a trade that strengthens left field, and perhaps the Tigers bullpen.
Rotation: Can Smyly be brought aboard?
The Tigers never planned to horde six starting pitchers. But they’re glad they did. One, Drew Smyly, became a bullpen lifeguard, while the five remaining thoroughbreds combined to give the Tigers the best starting pitching in all of baseball.
So, why mess up a good thing?
Because they figure to shore up their bullpen ahead of spring camp. And a better bullpen means Smyly, who is a natural starter, could slide into a rotation that could benefit from a left-hander Ausmus ideally wants, particularly when the American League features so many left-handed bats.
Another reality has to do with market prices. If the Tigers are serious about remodeling left field and their bullpen, a combination of a starter and a hot prospect like Castellanos is the freight necessary to swing a deal of the kind Dombrowski probably seeks.
Beefing up a bullpen: Tigers need a few (more) good men
It was telling last week when the Tigers parted with Jose Veras, a 33-year-old, right-handed reliever they could have hung onto for the relatively low price of $4 million.
The Tigers were saying, plainly: We can do better.
Brad Ausmus, meet your new team.