The 2014 season is looking like a season of change in Detroit. The recent Prince Fielder/Ian Kinsler trade has started a roster shuffle that isn't likely to end there. Most observers are very confident that a bullpen reconfiguration will be on tap soon and it would also seem that a lefty bat will be acquired at some point. Players such as Miguel Cabrera and Nick Castellanos could be switching positions back to old haunts as well.
But the first change to be made at the conclusion of a third straight AL Central winning season but an unsuccessful experience in the ALCS was in the dugout. That's the one change we don't have a lot of evidence to make a guess in terms of how things will turn out. Brad Ausmus is the new manager replacing the venerable Jim Leyland. As most know, Ausmus has not managed or coached in the major leagues with only a short stint as the leader of Team Israel on his resume. He does come armed with a long tenure as an MLB catcher, has worked in the San Diego front office, and gets raves from many in the game with knowledge of his baseball mind and instincts.
At this point it's all guess work as to how it will turn out. I've long been someone who hasn't worried too much about the manager except in a few instances of game management. It's always seemed to me that many managers "go by the book" and the book was evidently on sale at Amazon, so nearly everyone bought it. Frankly, many guys approach the game in a similar fashion from the perspective that we're allowed to see from a distance. There are only so many ways to stand out from the crowd in a positive fashion. Often it does boil down to "who has the horses and who doesn't".
Baseball writer Joe Sheehan (find his newsletter online and buy it. I think it's worth every penny) has often broken down the manager's gig into two distinct phases...the "3 hour" portion of the job during the game making tactical decisions and the "21 hour" part of the job where the manager's leadership, personnel management, and media relations skills are put to the test off the field. I think breaking it down this way may seem simplistic to some, but captures the majority of the job's scope.
Let's dispense with the 21-hour part. The proof will be in the pudding next season and the year's after. There is no real way to know right now. Tigers fans can only trust that GM Dave Dombrowski had the feel for picking the right leader for his next group of players. I think it's safe to assume that Dombrowski spoke to nearly every person at his disposal with knowledge of Ausmus to get the deepest possible insight into his character and people skills.
Keeping Gene Lamont on board should be helpful to Ausmus as well. Lamont knows the lay of the land in that clubhouse and should be able to at least give his new skipper some useful hints to avoid a few land mines. Ausmus and Lamont are evidently tight, so there should be some trust already built into the relationship.
Ausmus' leadership however will be judged as much by the win/loss column as anything. He could be a cross between Knute Rockne and Abe Lincoln when it comes to leadership. However if the club has trouble with injuries or poor performances beyond the manager's control and slides toward .500 it will be on Ausmus' shoulders to weather the "Fire Ausmus" whispers that will crop up faster than many think. I'm sure Ausmus and Dombrowski don't need to be told this of course...they are ready for that.
It's the 3-hour part of the job that interests me far more right now. Given Ausmus' lack of managing, we also have no real idea how he'll approach game management. This is something that we, as outside observers, can watch much more intently and start to make some conclusions once the games start. It will in front of us every day unlike the conversations with players and coaches we aren't privy to in the clubhouse.
What will we see? How, if at all, will Ausmus stick out from the other managers he'll be matching wits against? Is he "old school", "new school", or some kind of hybrid? (perhaps it becomes known as the "Ausmus School" someday after a long tenure in Detroit with 3 rings! Hey, we can dream...)
There are few immediate areas where I will be looking for traits in Ausmus. Let's explore just a couple of the dozen or more we could pinpoint:
Outside of Miguel Cabrera, the strength of the Tigers is their dominant starting rotation. How will Ausmus manage this crew? Managing the workload of each respective pitcher is going to be the main task to maximize this group's impact.
Is Ausmus a "pitch count" adherent? Almost every manager at some point says they aren't...but many of us feel much different. The antsy feeling everyone gets when a starter is having success but approaching 100 pitches has been ingrained into us for a reason...the plug tends to get pulled fairly soon after the century mark whether it makes sense or not. Mostly I am hoping to see signs of flexibility based on what the manager, pitching coach, and catcher are seeing on that day instead of simply getting skittish whenever Rick Porcello hits 95 pitches or Anibal Sanchez gets to 110. Judge the pitch's quality and not the number of pitches.
Conversely to dealing with a high-quality successful rotation, Ausmus' managing of his bullpen will require steering a group that has had only sporadic success of late in Detroit. Putting pitchers in spots to succeed is crucial.
Admittedly, bullpen tactics is a pet peeve of mine that has developed over the years. I have no real hopes that Ausmus is the guy who will insert his best reliever ("the Closer" most often) to quell a brewing rally in the 7th inning against the middle of the opposition's order. I would love that...but the first manager who does a lot of it better have an iron backbone and plenty of life savings to deal with the fallout if it goes awry too often.
For the most part I will be content to see longer outings by the best relievers, inserting the Closer into tie games on the road, and simply not letting the Save-stat rule every move. I also like it when managers treat a one-run deficit like a high-leverage spot. All too often we see a rather pedestrian reliever tasked with holding a deficit where it is. That's fine if you're down four or more runs...but a one or two run deficit is a game still worthy of the attention of the main relievers if they're rested and ready to roll.
Simply put, I'd like to see more aggressive use of pinch-hitters. This isn't easy in today's game of course. The "Big Bullpen Era" is upon us and we see very short benches for the most part prior to expanded rosters in September.
The Tigers will be playing Jose Iglesias as their primary shortstop this season. Frankly, my offensive expectations for him are pretty limited. I love the glove but feel only mildly optimistic on the bat (he is young enough to get better, I'll give him that). Unless Iglesias really shows a lot more than he did last year after the trade, I see no reason for him to face a tough righty reliever late in close games with runners on base. If Dombrowski can provide Ausmus with a solid lefty power option on the bench, I make that move to hit for Iglesias often. To be honest, I'd have no problem hitting for Nick Castellanos in certain spots either as he adjusts to the major leagues. "Grooming youngsters" needs to be balanced by "doing what it takes to win".
I would also be excited to see if Ausmus will pinch hit for his catchers. Often these opportunities to chase better match ups is bypassed simply because it's a time honored idea not get down to one catcher in case of an injury. I'm sorry...I don't agree here. If a shutdown lefty reliever is coming in to face Alex Avila the Tigers need to get a righty bat in the batter's box. If Bryan Holaday is the backup and he subsequently gets hurt, the Tigers can lose the DH and let Victor Martinez catch a couple of innings. The odds of this happening are quite low anyway. Certainly those odds are surpassed by the odds of hitting for the catcher in big spots yielding a few important hits over the course of the season. Even without the Martinez option, I would still be far less passive when it comes to hitting for the catcher.
Ausmus could be limited here by roster construction of course. The Big Bullpen Era conspires against having options on the bench. Ausmus might be want to be aggressive in pinch-hitting but be forced into passivity by his roster. Is there any chance Ausmus gets Dombrowski's okay to carry a 6-man bullpen and an extra bat on the bench? Does Ausmus want that extra bat? Does he feel the need for a 7th reliever to be on hand consistently? Again, as with much of what we discuss about Ausmus, right now we don't know.
Make it rare, Brad. Thank you. Moving on.
Touching on this handful of topics of game management doesn't even get into batting orders, the employment of the hit-n-run, base-stealing, squeeze bunting and many others. In time we'll have more data points to discuss about Ausmus and his views of game tactics.
It will also be interesting to see the role of "Defensive Coordinator" Matt Martin. Will this lead to more defensive shifts being employed in Detroit? It seems that Martin may be sifting through a lot of information and we'll see if there is any immediate impact on run prevention. Ausmus' ability to get buy-in from his veterans in this area will be critical.
Right now it's all shrouded in the mystery of the unknown. The Tigers front office probably feels pretty confident based on the interview process and their investigation into Ausmus that they have the right man on hand to be lead their roster onto the field. Will the core players buy in to his leadership? Is Ausmus up to the nightly tactical challenge he'll face? It will be fascinating to watch it all play out. There promises to be dozens of twists and turns for the young skipper.
In my view there are likely very few managers who turn out to be worth more than 3 to 5 extra wins in a given season over their rival dugout leaders. It's a hard thing to quantify and something that might yield itself more to the "eye test" which is as unreliable as anything else. However I'm interested to see if going with the young untested, but highly thought of, managing prospect yields a difference making manager for the Tigers. I did not feel that any of the retread "old hands" (or proven big league managers) like Dusty Baker and Charlie Manual were the types of guys who were positive difference makers. I'm excited to see the Tigers venture willingly into the unknown with Ausmus. We'll see how it plays out.