"They didn't need me when I got here. And they won't need me when I'm gone," Jim Leyland said early in his Tigers managing career. "If they can play, they can play. Fortunately, they can play." That philosophy will be put to a test now that Brad Ausmus has taken over the job of managing the Detroit Tigers and tasked with getting a team that fell two wins shy of repeating as American League champions not just back to the World Series, but parading through downtown Detroit with the Commissioner's Trophy.
Ausmus enters the job with little experience but heaping qualities of hype. An 18-year veteran as a catcher who has since spent time "interning" as a special assistant with the Padres, Ausmus' baseball credentials are impeccable. Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said during a press conference that everyone he talked to spoke glowingly of Ausmus. Words like a born leader, born the manage and intelligent flowed easily from lips of those speaking about the 44-year-old Dartmouth graduate. It's easy to become excited by the reaction to the signing. "Everyone who knows Brad Ausmus believes he'll be an outstanding manager," Danny Knobler wrote at CBS Sports. The question, as Knobler posed in his column, is whether Ausmus will be an outstanding manager from the start. But maybe he doesn't have to be. Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal notes: "A rival GM likes the Tigers' hiring of Ausmus, saying the position is a 'turnkey job, like the Cardinals (were) for Matheny.'"
This is a move with risk but possible reward. The Tigers would have known what they were getting in Lloyd McClendon. He's a guy who managed 2001-05 and has been on Leyland's staff ever since. McClendon is a known commodity: his strengths, his weaknesses. It's possible he could have extended the Leyland era without missing a beat. On the other hand, that was far from guaranteed, either. Every manager is a bit different, and how players responded to McClendon may have been totally different than they responded to Leyland. It's possible the vice president who rose to the position when his predecessor retired would not be nearly as good as the one who once held the power.
The risk with Ausmus is that beyond the respect, beyond the kind words, no one knows what they'll get. True, Ausmus managed Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, but to pretend that was anything near the situation he inherits in Detroit would be a folly. The stakes were lower. It's still hard to see the WBC as anything more than an annoying exhibition that inserted itself in the midst of spring training. Meanwhile the Tigers, and their $150 million payroll and championship expectations, have a group of millionaires, Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player winners and probable hall of famers. Rather than in the X's and O's of the game, which should come naturally to a catcher, this potential weakness has been turned into a strength in Dombrowski's mind. "Communicating with players and providing leadership are probably the most important parts of the job, assuming you have a pulse of the game. Every time Brad's name came up was effusive with praise. They talked about his leadership capabilities."
On paper, this is exciting and awesome and new. The hot name that came up again and again when manager jobs opened. The Tigers showing they're willing to try something a little different, not content to stick to the status quo. Are the Tigers a turnkey operation, a team of players who can play? Yes, and yes. But will the decision to hire Ausmus work? That can only be answered in time.