DETROIT — Dave Dombrowski has the luxury of going into the offseason with the knowledge that he has four good starting pitchers ready to go for the 2015 season.
A rotation requires five, though, and filling that last spot might be the biggest decision he and his staff make between now and Opening Day.
There’s no question as to what would be the ideal solution — signing Max Scherzer to a long-term deal and giving Brad Ausmus a full season with the rotation he was supposed to use for the last two months of the season: Scherzer, David Price, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello.
That group was supposed to help Detroit sweep into the postseason and give them a chance at the World Series title that has eluded the franchise for 30 years. Instead, it barely stayed together for a week before Sanchez sustained the pectoral strain that limited him to two relief outings in the season’s dying days.
Now, of course, Scherzer is a free agent and expected to draw interest from every big-money franchise in the game. It’s a situation that Dombrowski desperately tried to avoid in spring training, but he and Scott Boras were unable to reach a deal on a contract extension.
"We had thorough conversations before the season, and we made it pretty well known where we stood," Dombrowski said Tuesday. "Max is a quality pitcher, and we know that, but it is apparent that his representative wanted him to test free agency. That comes up in a couple weeks."
The Tigers will be among the bidders, but Dombrowski did not sound optimistic.
"I don’t think our odds improve now as to where they were earlier," he said. "Why would they improve when we had one-on-one ability to speak to him, and now there are 29 other teams that can speak to him. I don’t know that answer. Only time will tell."
If Scherzer takes a huge contract from a deep-pocketed team like the Yankees or Dodgers or goes home to pitch for the Cardinals, Dombrowski will probably choose from one of two options.
He can either go after another free agent — Kansas City’s James Shields would be an obvious choice — or he can leave the job open for one of Detroit’s pitching prospects to win in March. A trade is less likely, because the Tigers don’t have the big-name prospects to make it happen.
"I don’t know what we would do, but I think we have some young pitchers that we feel pretty comfortable with at this point," he said. "I’m not sure how that would all take place, but I would feel comfortable staying internal, especially with the four guys we have at this point. We haven’t made that decision."
The leading candidates for the fifth spot come from the five minor-league pitchers who made spot starts for the Tigers at some point last season — Kyle Lobstein, Robbie Ray, Buck Farmer, Kyle Ryan and Drew VerHagen. Lobstein would go into spring training as the favorite, having posted a 3.10 ERA in his first five major-league starts, all in the pressure of a pennant race, before a bad loss to Minnesota in Game 161.
Ray was Detroit’s main return for Doug Fister, and came into this season as the highest-rated pitching prospect in the system. He struggled badly in two stints replacing Sanchez, though, and struggled with his control in Toledo. By the end of the regular season, he and Farmer were pitching mop-up duty in Detroit, while VerHagen finished the season on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his back.
Ryan is the wild-card candidate after a strange 2014. He spent most of the year in Erie, and wasn’t particularly impressive, going 7-10 with a 4.55 ERA. In August, he was promoted to Toledo when the Mud Hens ran short of starting pitching, and his career took off. In five starts with the Mud Hens, he went 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA, including six shutout innings in his final start.
Five days later, with the Tigers needing a starter for the second game of a doubleheader in Chicago, they chose to go with the hottest pitcher in the system ahead of Ray or Farmer. Ryan made the move pay off, pitching six more shutout innings to beat the White Sox. He then pitched four scoreless relief outings in September before, like Lobstein and several other Tigers pitchers, having a bad day against the Twins on the final weekend of the regular season.
Having just turned 23 and with only six starts above Double-A, Ryan is probably headed for Toledo in the spring, but he could be back in Detroit if a starter has health problems.
No matter who wins the fifth spot, though, the Tigers will go into 2015 with as good a top four as anyone in baseball. Price’s win in Game 162 and his strong outing against Baltimore in Game 3 of the ALDS showed why he’s considered one of the best pitchers in the game, while Verlander should improve from a 2014 season that was ruined by the injury that prevented him from working out at his normal intensity last winter.
Porcello finally had the breakthrough season that the Tigers have hoped for since 2009, although he struggled down the stretch of his first 200-inning season, and Sanchez was, once again, one of the most underrated pitchers in the American League when he was healthy. His pair of stints on the disabled list meant that he only pitched 126 innings — the first time he hadn’t reached 180 since 2009.
"When you look at our situation with Price, Sanchez and Verlander, and I think he will be driven to bounce back, and we have Rick Porcello, that’s a pretty good place to start," Dombrowski said. "We’ve won the division for four straight years, and we feel like we are in a good situation going forward.
"We just need to have the success in the postseason that will get us a World Series. That still hasn’t happened."