Tuesday’s shocking news that Dave Dombrowski was fired as the Detroit Tigers’ president and general manager will have ramifications throughout the organization in the coming months. The promotion of long-time Dombrowski assistant Al Avila into the general manager's position seems designed to ensure continuity within the organization. Yet, the timing of the move, and the current lack of clarity as to the reasons and motivations behind the change leave a lot of questions hanging in the air. Not least of which is what the change in leadership means for manager Brad Ausmus and his future with the club.
Whether Ausmus would earn another year running the team was already an open question. A record of 141-126 as of this writing is respectable, if unimpressive given the team's talented roster. However, the Tigers early exit from the postseason in 2014, coupled with a very disappointing performance this season had most questioning Ausmus’ job security even before Dombrowski was cut loose. With the 2015 Tigers far from the heart of the postseason discussion for the first time in several years, the entire organization is in unfamiliar territory at the moment. Under such circumstances, no one’s position seems secure, least of all the Tigers’ beleaguered manager.
Avila’s introductory press conference featured a statement on Ausmus that, while supportive, doesn’t exactly signify a ringing long-term endorsement. "He’s our manager for the rest of the season, for sure. I have all the confidence in him. I think he’s done a good job."
The real questions that will decide Ausmus’ future manager will be framed by assessments of blame for the Tigers’ lackluster record, and by who is doing the evaluating. It remains to be seen whether Avila will have something of a free hand to determine who he wants managing the team. No doubt his input was involved in the hiring process that led to Ausmus' hiring to begin with. Still, we have no indications as to how he intends to evaluate the Tigers' manager at season's end, nor how supportive of the hire Avila initially was. It may be that this decision will come primarily from ownership. We’re not likely to know in either case.
The Tigers’ have played uncharacteristically lackluster baseball this season. That, coupled with a surprising and unchecked number of mental errors from his players, bodes ill for Ausmus’ future with the team. Likewise, his failure to put his most effective relievers in the highest leverage situations has left Ausmus wide-open for criticism. A tenure that began in April of 2014 with one of the Tigers’ hottest starts ever has devolved into a team that has played sub-.500 baseball ever since.
Certainly, Ausmus has dealt with a substantially diminished rotation this season, and this should be viewed as the Tigers’ primary flaw this season. The blame there has to fall mainly on Dombrowski, though certainly ownership’s aggressive win-now approach played no small part in the degradation of the Tigers’ farm system. The Tigers had no quality alternatives available to deal with Justin Verlander’s injury and ineffectiveness of Shane Greene and more recently, Alfredo Simon. In addition, while Ausmus’ use of his relief corps has been roundly criticized during his short tenure, many of those woes could be viewed as largely a function of Dombrowski’s failure to provide his manager a quality bullpen with which to work.
The question is how the Ilitch family and Avila view the roster and it's results. The fact that they made no coinciding move to replace Ausmus while replacing Dombrowski doesn’t mean he will be back in 2016. Keeping Ausmus as the team’s manager may well be a move designed simply to ensure as little disruption for the team as possible during the season. Now that the trade deadline has passed, a general manager’s last major in-season roster decisions are now in the rearview mirror. The timing of the move allows Avila time to get comfortable in his new role before the heavy lifting the offseason personnel decisions begins again in the off-season. Deciding on the team's managerial direction will be the first defining mark of Avila's tenure as general manager.
Perhaps not even a tentative decision has been made as to Ausmus' future as the team's manager. Avila spoke of his high expectations for the team, now and in the future, during his press conference. "We're confident we can make a strong push to win this year, and that we have the foundation in place to win next year and for years to come."
Brad Ausmus' job may depend on his ability to get that "strong push" out of his team over the season's final two months. But it certainly feels like a tall order for him to retain his position at this point. He'll have to convince an owner who appears quite frustrated with the team’s performance, and ready to make major changes. In addition, he's working under a new general manager who, while familiar, may have a very different direction in mind for the ballclub. Ausmus' will have to show tangible improvement on the field to have a real case that he should be retained. And he'll have to do it with a vastly diminished roster than in years past. When big pieces in an organization start shifting, it's difficult to foresee all the fallout, but you can bet that Brad Ausmus knows he's going to be the center of attention for his owner and new general manager. It can't be a comfortable position to be in right now.