Major League Baseball is a tough business where you either perform or get left in the dust. Any manager could conceivably find themselves unemployed at season's end. Poor performance, personality clashes, you name it. There are plenty of landmines out there for anyone tasked with running a big league club. Those with a long track record or great recent success may be immune, but for a young manager in his second year at the helm of a roster packed with top shelf talent, the pressure is very real.
If the Tigers fail to win the Central this year, or win it and go out like lambs in the ALDS again, a segment of the fanbase is guaranteed to be up in arms in a big way. Depending on how the season plays out, it's not impossible that many of us who like Brad as manager now could find ourselves singing a much more discordant tune.
Normally, for a first year manager to lead his club through several major injuries and lousy years from his star starter and closer, to win the AL Central crown, would seem to bode very well for Brad's future. The Tigers' 2014 season wasn't always pretty, but you have to appreciate a guy who coolly brought his team back from behind late in the year to lock up the division in the final days of the season. But, of course, the Tigers aren't a team with average expectations. As Opening Day nears for the 2015 campaign, how safe is Brad Ausmus' job?
Fortunately for the Tigers, Ausmus seems like a pretty hard guy to rattle, because this season, expectations are as high as ever. Tigers fans are both excited and worried about the re-tooled roster, and as desperate for a World Series title as any fanbase in the game. A guillotine-shaped window appears poised above the neck of the franchise in the eyes of many national observers. Anything less than a World Series title for the Tigers is likely to result in a lot of angry second guessing and frustrated calls for a new direction. Of course, there are several other younger managers with the same "our time is now" type expectations -- looking at you, Matt Williams and Don Mattingly -- so Ausmus is certainly far from alone in dealing with the good fortune of a highly talented roster and rabid fanbase.
My best guess is that things would have to go pretty wrong for Dave Dombrowski and Mike Ilitch to fire him. They were impressed enough to take something of a chance on an inexperienced guy, when there were plenty of other candidates with more experience. And both are men with a long track record of successfully evaluating people for high powered positions. I imagine it takes some doing to persuade them they've made a bad hire. I think they viewed Brad as someone with a ton of baseball intelligence and communications skills, with a lot of recent experience as a superb defensive catcher who was very familiar with a lot of the players, and with the style and nuance of the modern game. If successful, we have a guy who could manage the team for a decade, ensuring a stability most teams don't enjoy. But if this team fails to make the playoffs this year, without major injuries factoring into the equation, Ausmus should be under serious organizational scrutiny come October.
What I expect is an aggressive team with a lot of talent in all areas, producing runs with a blend of speed and power, playing a much improved brand of defense. But, as it so often does, it all comes down to whether or not Brad Ausmus is able to get a solid performance from his bullpen.
The five headed monster of a rotation is potentially more fragile this year, making the work of the relievers even a bit more important. Joe Nathan's future as the closer appears to be serious danger, and we need to see Ausmus be much quicker to adapt if it goes ill for Joe, or any of his late innings relievers. Whether it's Buck Farmer, Alex Wilson, Angel Nesbitt or someone else, the Tigers need to be quick to add a piece, rather than simply waiting on Joe Nathan to come around if he gets off to another rough start.
Likewise, the Tigers right-handers in the bullpen faced a few too many power hitting lefties last year. Outside of a nice stretch by Blaine Hardy, no left-hander in the pen consistently did good work, and it left us at a disadvantage in terms of matchups in the late innings. With young left-handed power threats like Arcia and Vargas in their second season with the Twins, and especially the addition of Adam LaRoche and Brandon Moss to the White Sox and Indians, there is going to be an even greater premium on finding left-handed relievers who can do the job. Letting Phil Coke walk, and signing Tom Gorzelanny is a step in the right direction, but Ausmus is going to have to get solid contributions from Blaine Hardy, Ian Krol or Kyle Ryan in order to control those matchups throughout the course of the season.
While many would have liked to see the Tigers sign another elite reliever beyond picking up Joakim Soria's option, Dombrowski does seem to have assembled a much deeper array of talent, and Ausmus is going to have to find and ride the hot hands throughout the season. Nothing else he does is likely to be as crucial to the team's chances of success and at least a deep post-season run.
The Tigers play 25 of their first 32 games against A.L. Central opponents this season, including multiple series against Cleveland and Chicago. They're going to need to hit the ground running. I expect the Tigers to win the Central again, but the competition got a bit tougher this off-season. If we find ourselves with a baseball season that ends in September this year, you can bet that Brad Ausmus will feature prominently in the aftermath's angst. It's never any other way for a manager in the big leagues.
I'm sure Brad Ausmus understands that as well as anyone.
Ed.: Please welcome Kwisatz to the BYB staff!