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Top Five: Free Agents Tigers Should Pursue

The Tigers should be able to fill most of their needs on the free agent market. Here are five players who could make a big difference for next year's team.

Baseball is almost a week into free agency, and as expected, the market's been slow to begin. Actually, it's been non-existent. (Though the Indians and Royals have turned on the hot stove with a couple of bold moves to get some starting pitching.)

General manager Dave Dombrowski has indicated that the Detroit Tigers are going to approach this offseason with caution. In the past, you could probably roll your eyes and figure Dombrowski didn't want to tip his hand while keeping the media at a distance. But he's been relatively candid over the past year regarding offseason and trade deadline moves, so I think he can be taken at his word. 

Anyone expecting splashy signings like the Tigers made last year with Joaquin Benoit and Victor Martinez will probably be disappointed. I know a lot of Tigers fans want shortstop Jose Reyes, and he fills several of the team's needs. But the Tigers don't sound interested in adding another $20 million-plus player to their payroll, unless owner Mike Ilitch wants to give this a push like he did four years ago with Miguel Cabrera

Things can change quickly with the Tigers in one offseason. The Cabrera trade came out of nowhere. And the signings of Johnny Damon and Jose Valverde were surprises when they happened. Signing one of the top free agents available and beating out the teams that will be competing for him is different territory, however.

But I think the Tigers will still sign a notable free agent, someone who could be an impact player, not just a role player.

What the 2012 free agent class might lack in star power — especially as it pertains to the Tigers' interests — it makes up for with depth. If Detroit's top needs are a second baseman, middle reliever and fifth starting pitcher, there are plenty of players available to fill those spots. So many that I probably could've named 10-15 players. It's not a glamorous list, but here are five players I think the Tigers should go after this winter.

5. Erik Bedard: Detroit needs a veteran starter who can eat up some innings and anchor the back-end of what's still a relatively young starting rotation. Basically, he'll be keeping the seat warm until Jacob Turner is ready to sit down. The Tigers would prefer this pitcher be left-handed, too. 

Bedard showed he can get through a season relatively healthy by making 24 starts combined for the Mariners and Red Sox this year. Of the veteran lefties available, he probably has the best strikeout stuff, with 125 in 129 1/3 innings. Bedard is a huge jerk, from most accounts, but maybe that stuff wouldn't fly in a veteran clubhouse.

4. Kelly Shoppach: The Tigers need a right-handed hitting backup catcher to back up Alex Avila. Shoppach didn't hit much last season for the Rays, compiling a .176/.268/.339 average. But he did show some pop, slugging 11 home runs in 87 games. That wouldn't leave a black hole in the lineup when Avila gets a day off. 

Even better for Detroit's purposes, Shoppach would also provide some quality defense behind the plate. Catching in 86 games, he threw out 41 percent of opposing basestealers (18 of 44) while allowing one passed ball and 16 wild pitches. That's the sort of catching you'd like to see from someone who has to get down and block the hard breaking balls Tigers pitchers like to throw. 

3. Jerry Hairston Jr.: Names like Aaron Hill and Kelly Johnson have been tossed out there as potential second base choices for Detroit, but what about a guy who could play second base and also help out at third base or in left field? I've written elsewhere that the Tigers should try to trade for the Braves' Martin Prado, but if they can't get him, Hairston could be a good second choice.

Why not just re-sign Ramon Santiago, you might ask. (Or Jamey Carroll, for that matter.) Hairston offers even more defensive versatility, but more importantly for the Tigers, he gets on base. Last season, he had a .344 OBP for the Nationals and Brewers. Could he be a potential leadoff hitter? He didn't bat in that spot much this year, and the Tigers would probably prefer more speed atop the order. But someone who can get on base and strikes out about one-fourth as much as Austin Jackson would be a vast improvement. 

2. Jonathan Broxton: Detroit's ALCS loss to the Rangers highlighted the glaring hole in their bullpen. The late-inning relief corps is set with Benoit and Valverde. But the bridge from the starting pitcher to those relievers is made of rope, wobbling and missing some wood planks. 

Signing Broxton would be a risk, as he had elbow surgery this year to remove bone spurs and chips. He pitched only 12 2/3 innings last season, giving up 10 runs and 15 hits. But he still struck out 10 batters. Broxton had his surgery in mid-September, and the recovery timetable should have him throwing soon. The question is whether or not he'll return as a 100 m.p.h flamethrower. Or will he have to adopt another pitch — maybe a slider or cutter — to get hitters out?

No team is going to sign Broxton as a closer for next season. He has to prove he's healthy and can pitch through a full season again. Why not audition for a big payday next year by pitching as a middle reliever with a playoff contender? Money for relievers could get crazy with the four-year, $44 million deal Ryan Madson signed with the Phillies. So the Tigers might have to be creative. Taking a chance on Broxton would be one way to do it.

1. Mark Buehrle: OK, this might be a bit of a stretch. And I've already listed one left-handed starting pitcher on this list. But Bedard is an injury risk. And have we mentioned he's a jerk? Yes, there are other left-handed options out there, such as Jeff Francis, Chris Capuano and Bruce Chen. Some baseball writers have already speculated that Chen and the Tigers are a good match. But can we aim just a little higher here? 

Buehrle has won 13 games in each of the past three years. He's made 30 or more starts and pitched more than 200 innings in every one of his 11 full major league seasons. His career ERA is less than four runs, pitching in the American League. And over his career, Buehrle has averaged two walks per nine innings. He's like a left-handed Doug Fister. Actually, he's more like a pitching version of Victor Martinez. Solid. Consistent. 

Signing Buehrle would also have the added benefit of weakening the Chicago White Sox. Not to mention that he's been rather successful against Detroit during his career. (Well, except for that Sept. 4 start in which he gave up eight runs and 10 hits in 3 1/3 innings.) In the past, Buehrle sounded as if he'd prefer to stay in Chicago or go pitch for his hometown Cardinals. But neither may be a viable option now, especially when at least four other teams are reportedly interested in him, three of which are arguably the top clubs in the AL.

One player not on this list that I would've liked to see Detroit go after is Michael Cuddyer. Not just because he'd be an improvement in left field and could help out at other positions, if needed. But signing him would also take a key bat away from the Minnesota TwinsSeveral reports have the Philadelphia Phillies going after Cuddyer, so even if the Tigers were interested — and there's no indication that they are — he, like Buehrle, might become too pricey.

Last year, I listed five free agents the Tigers should go after and got one right with Benoit. This year, I might have more wishful thinking in my list. I don't know if Dombrowski will be willing to take too many chances with a 95-win team that should contend against next year. I would argue that's the scenario under which to take a few gambles. But the Tigers can also be conservative. Especially on the pitching side, with several good players available

So how do you see it? Should the Tigers aim higher than the players listed? Or should they play it safe?