Tigers Make A Dramatic Change With Brad Ausmus
There’s no doubt that Ausmus is intelligent and baseball savvy. He went to Dartmouth, was a Gold Glove catcher, was a well-spoken leader and had a penchant for clutch hits in the playoffs. The Tigers are a team that won’t require very much tweaking or for Ausmus to do anything to keep them a contender. He was up for several managing jobs and his interview and resume were so impressive than an old-school general manager like Dave Dombrowski was willing to look past his total absence of managerial experience and tab him as the team’s new manager to replace Jim Leyland.
It’s an outside-the-box hire even though Ausmus was a well-known managerial prospect. The new trend is to ignore so-called antiquated beliefs when it comes to hiring a manager. It used to be that pitchers were rarely managerial prospects. Now John Farrell’s success with the Red Sox coupled with the respected work Bud Black has done with the Padres is giving former pitchers and pitching coaches an opportunity they might not have had before.
Mike Matheny had never managed anywhere when he was tabbed to replace Tony LaRussa with the Cardinals and has made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and won a pennant this year. Dombrowski is following the lead of the Cardinals with the Ausmus hire. The resume looks great, but there have been many managers who had a wonderful list of accomplishments and were disasters as managers. Trey Hillman couldn’t have been a better candidate. He was a player, coach, scout and successful manager in Japan. The Royals hired him and it just didn’t work. He was overwhelmed with the media scrutiny and his strategies were haphazard. Sometimes the best candidates on paper and in the interview aren’t the ones that succeed.
There are several ways to look at this and all have some validity in saying this is a good or bad idea. Teams in sports have their own strategies in replacing longtime coaches/managers. The Pittsburgh Steelers have had three head coaches since 1969. When four-time Super Bowl winner Chuck Noll retired, the Steelers went in a totally different direction when they hired Bill Cowher – a former assistant with the Chiefs and Browns.
When Cowher resigned, they chose not to elevate two qualified coaching candidates who’d been with the Steelers and worked under Cowher in Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt, instead selecting a 34-year-old career assistant who had one year as a defensive coordinator, Mike Tomlin. It's worked brilliantly. There’s an argument for going in an entirely different direction with someone outside the organization to avoid complacency and get a new voice. That’s what the Tigers are doing with Ausmus.
Another school of thought will look at the current construction of the roster and make the conscious decision to ride it as long as it lasts before going with a younger manager who, like Ausmus, has no experience in spite of a solid resume. Could the Tigers, as currently built, have just stuck an empty manager’s uniform at the end of the dugout (think Bob Brenly with the Diamondbacks) and still won? Probably. But that would have been a disposable manager and clearly Dombrowski wants someone long-term.
The simplest decision for Dombrowski would have been to keep the Leyland staff intact and shift Gene Lamont over as the new manager. He's managed in the big leagues and wouldn’t screw it up. With Ausmus, they’re said to be keeping Lamont as the bench coach. Pitching coach Jeff Jones’s fate has not been determined. It would be unfair to Ausmus to saddle him with all of Leyland’s coaches. Knowing Leyland, he was probably most concerned about the fates of his coaches when he retired, but the Tigers are not beholden to keeping Lloyd McClendon and Rafael Belliard on the staff.
As for the players, look at their core. Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Anibal Sanchez are signed and going nowhere. For 2014, Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter are signed. If they’re going to win under their current template, it has to be with these players as their centerpieces. After 2014, they could start to alter the club and change on the fly without Martinez and Hunter and consciously try to get younger. But for 2014, the Tigers will be the same team they were under Leyland.
This strategy appears to be giving Ausmus a team that won’t require much work and he’ll be able to learn on the job until he actually does have to do some managing with fewer stars and younger players. Dombrowski has been a GM long enough to deserve the benefit of the doubt for a surprising hire. That doesn’t mean that the critical acclaim that the hiring of Ausmus is receiving is deserved as of yet.