DETROIT -- Barring something unforeseen, Jose Valverde has closed his last game for the Tigers. Almost certainly, Delmon Young has hit his last clutch home run in a Detroit uniform.
If team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski has his way, it won't be the end of Anibal Sanchez's tenure in Detroit, but Sanchez and the market will have the final say on that. At this point, he's the one free agent the Tigers will actively pursue.
That plan was already suspected long before Dombrowski held his annual question-and-answer session with reporters at the end of the season, but Dombrowski made it official with his remarks Tuesday afternoon.
"We're thankful for things they have done for us, but also you have to make some business decisions," said Dombrowski, who told the players of the team's plans after Sunday's loss to the Giants to end the World Series.
The decision on Young had been obvious virtually the entire season, really ever since the Tigers signed Prince Fielder in January. With Victor Martinez expected to return next spring after knee surgery and rehab, he'll take back his spot at designated hitter, the one position where the Tigers felt comfortable playing Young.
"We look at him primarily as a DH at this time," said Dombrowski.
Young batted .268 with 26 home runs and 106 RBIs over 191 regular-season games in a Tigers uniform since he came over from Minnesota in August 2011. His biggest contributions, however, came in the postseason, where his eight home runs put him in the Tigers record books ahead of Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg.
Young went 15-for-48 this postseason with three home runs and seven RBIs. His 5-for-14 performance in the World Series made him one of the few Tigers to hit at or above expectations in the Fall Classic.
Martinez is expected back at full strength for Spring Training, and is under contract for two more seasons. Manager Jim Leyland pointed out during his remarks that he doesn't know whether Martinez will get back to his old form from before his knee injury. He batted .330 with 12 homers and 103 RBIs in 2010.
"I don't know how it's going to come out," Leyland said. "Everybody's just assuming."
That said, Martinez's track record is simply too good to ignore. And between the inconsistencies and off-field issues surrounding Young, who was arrested in April after an incident outside the team hotel in New York, it was a simple decision.
The Tigers' plans at closer, by contrast, are far less certain. They could keep their bullpen by committee, centered around Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel. They could factor top relief prospect and Futures Game participant Bruce Rondon into the mix with his triple-digit fastball, a possibility Dombrowski referred to time and again during his hour-long session.
"I would not discount Bruce Rondon in our competition for the closer role for next year," Dombrowski said. "He is a guy that averages 100 mph and tops out at 103. We really, really seriously thought before the first of September if we should bring him up to join us for the postseason."
If they knew the late-season and postseason struggles that lay ahead for Valverde, they would have brought up Rondon, Dombrowski said. As it is, Valverde's likely last appearances as a Tiger will be his ninth-inning debacles at Oakland and New York. Leyland played his save chances by matchups from there on out, and benefited from a resounding late-season performance by Coke.
Leyland said he has no problem going with a closer by committee, having done so for at least two of his three division-winning seasons in Pittsburgh during the early '90s. Even so, he also hinted that Rondon could play a big role for them, despite limited experience above Double-A.
"As long as you know what you have, it's not bad at all," Leyland said. "But who's to say we won't have a closer? I think we will have a closer. I think it might be a surprise closer, but I think we might have one. And I'm not talking about Phil Coke.
"Rondon's a good name. Who knows? I'm just mentioning that name, that it's a possibility when you have an arm like that."
Dombrowski did not rule out signing a closer later in the offseason, depending on how the market unfolds. That's how they added Valverde three years ago as the last proven closer left on the market in mid-January.
"It would have to really be the right scenario," Dombrowski said.
Valverde's 110 saves over the last three seasons led the Majors. He won the Delivery Man of the Year Award in 2011 after going 49-for-49 in save chances, and saved another 35 games this year. His other numbers, however, showed his pitches were over the plate more often, and more hittable, and grew more so as the season unfolded.
By comparison, Sanchez overcame a rough opening month with the Tigers in August, having come over from the Marlins in a trade a week before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Once he began to learn American League hitters, and once the Tigers began to learn his game, he dominated down the stretch and into the postseason.
The 28-year-old right-hander allowed four runs on 14 hits over 20 1/3 innings in the postseason, including seven scoreless innings at Yankee Stadium to win Game 2 of the AL Championship Series and send the Tigers home in position to sweep.
The Tigers have never signed a top-flight free-agent starting pitcher to a big contract since Dombrowski took over a decade ago. Sanchez's performance might make him the exception.
"I know it's not going to be easy, we'd like to have Anibal Sanchez back if we could," Dombrowski said.
Leyland talked with Sanchez on his way out Sunday night. He made it clear he'd like Sanchez back, but also told him to explore his options.
"I told him, 'This is your chance. Chase it. Be happy,'" Leyland said. "I know he likes it here, but we all know how that goes."
How it goes this time will have a major effect on the Tigers' rotation. If Sanchez returns, the Tigers have to decide whether they want Rick Porcello, who's eligible for arbitration, or Drew Smyly for the fifth spot. If they opt for Smyly, Porcello could end up being traded.
If the Tigers don't retain Sanchez, they'll likely have Porcello and Smyly fill out their rotation, and Dombrowski said they'd look to add another starter as insurance.
At this point, if the Tigers are going to make a big splash in free agency like they have the last two seasons, it's most likely to involve Sanchez. Dombrowski said they'll look on the market for an athletic outfielder to take one of the corner spots, but he doesn't expect to go after a big-money player, despite saving the salaries of Young ($6 million) and Valverde ($9 million).
"We have a lot of guys that are due significant increases due to arbitration," Dombrowski said, "so I would say that those dollars are used up pretty quickly internally. We've pushed the payroll, as you're aware, the last few years many times, but I can't say that we're actively going to participate in trying to sign some big-dollar free-agent player. But I'm not saying that we're not going to do it at this time, either. We need to have those conversations."