The starting rotation of the Detroit Tigers is one of the best in baseball. It had the most wins (76), the lowest ERA (3.44) and the least homers allowed in the American League last season while leading the majors in innings pitched and strikeouts.

And Cy Young Award candidate Max Scherzer, who the Tigers are reportedly willing to trade in the right deal this offseason, was probably the biggest reason why. 

Take him out of the equation, and the Tigers are left with a gaping hole in their rotation. Replacing his 23 wins (including two in the playoffs), 2.90 ERA and 16 starts (including two in the playoffs) of at least seven innings with no more than two earned runs allowed is no easy task.

In fact, it’s probably impossible unless they were able to sign free agent Ervin Santana, who also had 14 regular-season starts of at least seven innings with no more than two earned runs allowed. And even that wouldn’t be the same because Santana doesn’t strike out nearly as many hitters as Scherzer.

Maybe Masahiro Tanaka, who’s expected to be posted from the Japanese League later this offseason, is capable of picking up the slack. Maybe not is more likely. Pitchers like that are few and far between, and the price would be outrageous for a guy who might be able to fill Scherzer‘s shoes. 

But that’s exactly why the Tigers are willing to shop the 29-year-old Scherzer a year before he’s eligible for free agency. Unless the Tampa Bay Rays trade David Price, it’s likely that he’d be the best starting pitcher acquisition of the offseason, and the return could be huge.

If they don’t feel that a contract extension can be worked out, it wouldn’t hurt to at least find out what one season of his services would bring them back in a trade. 

When rumors first surfaced last month after Danny Knobler of CBS Sports first reported a Scherzer trade as having a “real chance,” I named five potential suitors and the trade package it would take for each team to acquire him.  

Each package contained a very good prospect or two and, in most cases, a pitcher who could help the big league club in 2014. For an organization with a weak farm system and needs in the bullpen, these types of deals would need to be explored.

Pulling the trigger on one of those types of deals, however, could be disastrous for a team that has averaged 92 regular-season wins and has reached the ALCS in three consecutive seasons.

Even if it’s a move that can be viewed as necessary for the future success of the organization, taking a major step back during any season in which stars Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander are still in the prime of their careers could be viewed as a lost opportunity. 

Lefty Drew Smyly (pictured), who is next in line for a rotation spot in Detroit, is deserving of a shot. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if he were much better than the average No. 5 starter. The problem is how it affects the rotation as a whole.

Verlander, as he proved late in the season and throughout the playoffs, is still one of the best pitchers around and one of a few true “aces” in the game. Anibal Sanchez, whose spectacular season (14-8, 2.57 ERA, 2.7 walk rate, 10.0 strikeout rate) was overshadowed by Scherzer‘s win total, would follow him in the rotation. He’s a very capable No. 2, especially if 2013 wasn’t a fluke. But he may have been the best No. 3 in baseball. 

Doug Fister is in the same boat. One of the best No. 4 starters in baseball but only pretty good as a No. 3. It’s also hard to complain about having Rick Porcello as your fifth starter. But a guy with a career 4.51 ERA as the No. 4 starter doesn’t speak well for the overall state of the rotation. 

Of course, it’s possible for general manager Dave Dombrowski to sign one of the second-tier free-agent starters, such as Dan Haren or Bartolo Colon, to preserve the little rotation depth the Tigers have and keep Smyly in the pen for now. The drop-off wouldn’t be as severe, and he could look to upgrade in another area of the roster to try to make up for the rotation downgrade. 

The risk in heading into the season without the strength of the team intact, however, is much greater than in years past.

In 2012, the Tigers allowed much less talented teams in the division to hang around longer than necessary before pulling away late in the season. This year, the competition from the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals was heated, and Detroit barely held on to edge out Cleveland for the division title. 

Things won’t get any easier in 2014, as the young core of talent on those same two teams should continue to get better and the other two division opponents, the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins, have lots of payroll space and are each capable of making a splash this winter. 

It’s difficult to stay on top as the Tigers have done for the past three seasons. The offseason planning of their rivals likely revolves around what they need to do to knock the champions off the top. It can also be difficult to get back on top after you’ve fallen—the Tigers went 24 years (1987-2010) without winning the division. 

With or without Scherzer, there’s a possibility that they aren’t the last team standing in their division at season’s end.

But with the team’s window to win a World Series championship with their current high-paid stars likely closing sometime in the next few seasons—lack of minor league talent to replace aging veterans has a tendency to do that—they must take the win-now approach even if it means losing Scherzer for nothing more than a draft pick next offseason.

Dombrowski could be tempted by the offers, but he’ll pass on each and every one. Why? Because he knows that missing out on the playoffs in 2014 because the starting rotation wasn’t quite strong enough could haunt the organization for years. And he doesn’t want to be the cause of that.

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