By the time you read this, baseball's free agency market will have already opened for business. And with approximately $60 million coming off the team payroll, the Detroit Tigers are expected to be carrying one of the thickest wallets as they look to fill several holes on a team that won 81 games last season and finished third in the AL Central.
Tigers fans are likely already familiar with the big names that top the free agents list, and are rubbing their hands in anticipation over the possibility that Mike Ilitch could open his checkbook and give Dave Dombrowski the go-ahead to sign Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Adam Dunn or Victor Martinez.
(Personally, I wish Cliff Lee was on the Tigers' shopping list, but Dombrowski has already said they won't pursue a top-tier starting pitcher.)
Let's assume Detroit signs one of the four names listed above. They certainly have the money, and the only question is how much of a bidding war they're willing to engage in with the likes of the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels and New York Yankees. The Tigers definitely have the need. Dombrowski has said they will go after a run producer, presumably one who can bat in front of or behind Miguel Cabrera in the lineup.
However, there are other needs to address on the roster. At best, signing one of the big names would fill two (outfield and/or designated hitter). But that's not going to be enough if Detroit wants to compete for a playoff spot next season.
Keeping that in mind, here are five lower-tier free agents the Tigers could go after this winter.
No. 5: Scott Downs
The Tigers have made it clear they're looking for bullpen help. And with Bobby Seay looking doubtful for next season and Phil Coke slated to move to the starting rotation, a left-hander is needed in the bullpen. Daniel Schlereth could fill one of those spots, but Jim Leyland seems to like two lefties, especially if one is a specialist who can get out left-handed hitters.
Downs is coming off a fine year with the Toronto Blue Jays, in which he posted a 2.64 ERA and struck out 48 batters in 61 1/3 innings. Even more impressive is that left-handers batted only .152 against him last season. Downs's age (35) is a bit of a concern, but he's still effective and likely to be a cheaper option than Brian Fuentes.
No. 4: Frank Francisco
This one would be a bit of a risk. If you watched the Texas Rangers during their World Series run, perhaps you noticed that Francisco didn't pitch for them at all. That's because he was out with a latissimus dorsi injury (which affects his arm, rib or back, depending on who you talk to) that kept him off the playoff roster.
But if the Tigers want a Joel Zumaya type of reliever who can bring the heat and work as kind of a second closer, Francisco, 31, could be the guy. He began the year as the Rangers' closer and struck out 60 batters in 52 2/3 innings with a fastball that touches 95 m.p.h. Maybe Francisco wants to go where he can be the closer again, but staying healthy as a lights-out set-up man for a year might increase his value.
No. 3: Jim Thome
Thome might be a good news-bad news signing for Detroit. The good news? He'd give the Tigers the left-handed slugger they need. Last season, Thome, 40, hit .283/.412/.687 with 25 home runs and 59 RBIs for the Minnesota Twins. And he crushes right-handed pitching, posting a 1.154 OPS. Signing him would also have the added bonus of hurting a division rival.
The bad news? If the Tigers sign Thome, it might mean that they missed out on all of the big names they were hoping to sign. But let's take a more positive angle. Thome signed with the Twins for only $1.5 million last season. If he's willing to keep his price in that range, the Tigers could probably afford him and one of the top-tier hitters.
No. 2: Joaquin Benoit
If the Tigers want to bolster their bullpen and bring in a top-flight set-up man for Jose Valverde, why not bring in the best guy? Benoit, 32, was outstanding last season for the Tampa Bay Rays. He struck out 75 batters in 60 1/3 innings and compiled a 1.34 ERA. Opponents batted just .147 against Benoit, and he was equally effective against righties and lefties.
Detroit is already familiar with Benoit. They strongly considered signing him last year, but were understandably nervous about taking a chance on a pitcher who missed all of 2009 after rotator cuff surgery. The Rays took a chance on him, signing him to a minor-league deal, and ended up with one of the best set-up men in baseball. Benoit will surely be looking for a raise next season.
No. 1: Carl Pavano
Detroit may not want to sign a top-tier starting pitcher, but they'll still probably need to acquire at least one starter. Coke will presumably fill one of the openings in the Tigers' rotation. Armando Galarraga could take the other slot, but as a Super Two arbitration case, he could be in line for a raise that Detroit might not want to pay to an inconsistent pitcher.
The Tigers don't need to sign an ace. They need a No. 4 or 5 starting pitcher. And Pavano might be the best starter on the market after Lee. He's pitched 420 innings over the past two seasons, which would give Detroit exactly the sort of innings eater a team needs at the back of a rotation. He would provide the staff with a veteran presence that demonstrates excellent control (37 walks in 221 innings last season). And while pitching for the Indians and Twins during the last two years, Pavano earned 18 of his 31 overall wins against the AL Central.
Plus, as with Thome, signing Pavano would weaken the Twins. Anything to provide an edge in the division, right?
There are plenty of other intriguing names among the available free agents. (You can view a complete list here.) I could've easily gone to 10 with this list. What about hitters like Manny Ramirez and Brad Hawpe? Relievers like Grant Balfour and Kevin Gregg? Is anyone else intrigued by Hisanori Takahashi? How about taking a chance on Aaron Harang? And if the Tigers don't get Martinez, would they go after John Buck or Miguel Olivo?
But we're all about Top Fives here at SB Nation Detroit. Which players would you put on your own Top Five list? Besides the obvious names, who would you like to see the Tigers sign?