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Tigers face uncertain offseason with Scherzer, Martinez set to become free agents

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DETROIT — There will be no extended October run for the Detroit Tigers, a talented team that may have peaked in the middle of May.

After a 27-12 start, Brad Ausmus' first season as manager was a wobbly one.

"We started hot and got extremely cold," Ausmus said after the Tigers were eliminated from the AL Division Series by Baltimore. "Seemed to be a bumpy road there after the All-Star break. ... The resiliency was always there and ultimately we did win the division and that was the first goal. That was the first goal. The second goal was to win the World Series."

The Tigers may be running out of chances to achieve that second goal with this core of players.

Detroit won a fourth straight AL Central title this year, cementing this as one of the better eras in team history, but a three-game sweep in the playoffs at the hands of the Orioles ended the season on a sour note.

Detroit has not won a World Series since 1984, and now the Tigers face a potentially difficult offseason, with Max Scherzer and Victor Martinez set to become free agents.

"New guys come in and old guys leave. I'm the last guy standing from 2006," right-hander Justin Verlander said. "I think there's going to be a bit of a retooling."

Retooling doesn't mean rebuilding, of course. Detroit has Verlander and slugger Miguel Cabrera under contract for a while. David Price, acquired at this year's trade deadline, is also under team control for next year. With Verlander, Price, Anibal Sanchez and Rick Porcello, the Tigers' rotation figures to be in solid shape even if Scherzer leaves.

But Detroit's starting pitching — so dominant in the previous two postseasons — wasn't nearly enough against Baltimore, and there were small signs of decline during the regular season, too. Sanchez struggled to stay healthy and was in the bullpen for the playoffs. Verlander posted his highest ERA in six years.

The Tigers barely held off Kansas City in the division, winning it by one game. Then the bullpen — a problem throughout 2014 — blew Game 2 of the ALDS by coughing up a three-run lead in the eighth inning.

"I think Game 2 was probably the game that hurt us the most, obviously," Ausmus said.

Before this season, the Tigers signed closer Joe Nathan to a two-year deal. The 39-year-old right-hander went on to have one of the worst years of his career, blowing seven saves and finishing with a 4.81 ERA.

Joba Chamberlain slipped badly in the second half and postseason, and Joakim Soria — acquired from Texas in July — went down with an oblique strain in August. Soria pitched only 11 innings for the Tigers in the regular season, with Ausmus opting to stick with Nathan and Chamberlain in big spots down the stretch. Then Soria gave up the big hit that cost the Tigers in Game 2.

The Tigers have a team option for 2015 with Soria, and hard-throwing right-hander Bruce Rondon could provide a boost in relief. He missed this entire season with a torn ligament in his right elbow.

Shortstop Jose Iglesias also missed this whole season with injuries to both legs.

Outfielder J.D. Martinez shocked just about everyone by hitting .315 with 23 home runs after Detroit picked him up on a minor league deal, but right fielder Torii Hunter is headed to free agency, and there's a chance he may retire.

Catcher Alex Avila, meanwhile, has had to deal with concussion problems. He was taken out of Detroit's final game of the playoffs when a foul tip hit his mask.

So general manager Dave Dombrowski faces several challenges, especially if stars like Victor Martinez and Scherzer end up going elsewhere. Those free agency decisions could set the tone for the rest of the offseason.

"It's hard to even think about that now after a loss like this," Scherzer said. "I do hope I'm back. I love the clubhouse and everybody in it."

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