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Mailbag: Brad Ausmus can learn from Terry Francona

Not all of Francona’s moves translate to the regular season, but he is subtly changing the game this postseason.

ALCS - Cleveland Indians v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching postseason baseball — you know, aside from all of the high leverage situations and tense moments — is to see how managers strategize in the later innings. Bullpen usage, pinch hitters, you name it. Every move is exponentially more important in the playoffs, and they are conducted with one simple premise in mind: win at all costs.

These moves have ripple effects, though. Other teams, especially those sitting at home, are paying close attention to how these decisions affect the outcome of games. Rosters are constructed during the offseason with memory of these postseason moments in mind. We can track how a decision or two in the World Series leads to Player X or Y being over or undervalued in the free agent market.

Take the Kansas City Royals, for instance. They rode a top-flight defense and dominant bullpen to two World Series appearances, and now baseball is paying more attention than ever to these two aspects of the game. Relievers are making money hand over fist now — Darren O’Day has Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera to thank for his $31 million contract — and will cost even more this offseason now that Andrew Miller is a household name. Whether he and Cody Allen know it or not, they are quickly changing how the game of baseball will be played in 2017 and beyond.

Listen, I get the Joe Maddon love. He’s a great manager who squeezes everything he can out of his team during the regular season with his quirky personality and all the bizarre things he brings into the clubhouse. He has had his moments during the postseason as well, such as bringing in the right-handed C.J. Edwards to face lefty Joc Pederson in a key situation on Sunday. However, Maddon is also working with the deepest and most versatile roster in baseball, something Ausmus assuredly won’t have at his disposal next season.

This may be easy to say after he managed circles around John Gibbons on Monday evening, but the guy I would want Ausmus to emulate is Terry Francona. Sure, the Indians’ skipper has been blessed with a talented roster of his own, but he deserves all the credit in the world for how he is deploying said roster. Namely, Francona’s liberal usage of top-flight relievers Andrew Miller and Cody Allen has helped carry the Tribe through the postseason thus far. The two have combined to pitch 15 23 innings this postseason, a whopping 30.1 percent of the team’s total innings played.

Granted, this isn’t sustainable throughout the regular season, but Francona’s insistence on using Miller in every high leverage situation possible is something the Tigers could emulate next season. Between Bruce Rondon, a healthy Justin Wilson and Shane Greene, and rookie Joe Jimenez, the Tigers will have four power arms that can be deployed in tight situations. Odds are all four of these players won’t pan out — none of them will be the next Andrew Miller, to be sure — but if Ausmus can use one or two of them similar to how Miller is being deployed this postseason, the Tigers could really be in business next season.

I don’t know that I was entirely satisfied with how this season ended, but I would have preferred this outcome to selling at the trade deadline for the second consecutive year. For one, the Tigers didn’t have the pieces to truly profit off of a seller’s market at this year’s deadline. There was no David Price, nor a Yoenis Cespedes to be found. Sure, someone like Francisco Rodriguez or Justin Wilson may have netted the Tigers a decent prospect, but the return would have been a fraction of what the New York Yankees netted for Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller. Given that both Rodriguez and Wilson are still under club control for 2017 — not to mention the Tigers were still fighting for playoff position at the time — I did not think selling was the right idea.

This Tigers roster is already well equipped to win a playoff series, particularly because a short series with multiple off days would help mask their biggest flaws: namely, a lack of depth and iffy fifth starter(s).

However, the shrewdest way to improve this current team (assuming the pending free agents are still around) is to cut bait with Anibal Sanchez. Barring injury, both Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey will struggle to find a spot on the 2017 roster. One of them can be shuttled to the bullpen in a long relief role, but it’s hard to see the Tigers doing that with both players to start the year. Spring training results will play a factor in this decision — and remember, we’re five months away from this — but odds are Sanchez would get a leg up for a potential starting role thanks to his $16.8 million salary.

The Tigers are hopeful that Sanchez can regain some semblance of his prior form, but we will be looking at a 33-year-old pitcher who has been worth -1.0 rWAR over the past two seasons. If the 2012-2014 version of Sanchez were still in there somewhere, we probably would have seen glimpses of him by now.

Let me be clear: I’m not advocating that the Tigers actually dump Sanchez right now. However, if we’re looking for one specific way to improve the roster, it’s taking away the temptation to stick Sanchez back in the rotation in 2017.

There should not be any debate here: both Cameron Maybin and Francisco Rodriguez will have their 2017 options picked up by the Tigers. While Maybin was injury prone at times in 2016, he was well worth his weight in gold. He was worth 2.0 fWAR in 94 games, which equates to roughly $16 million per season on the open market. He is a capable center fielder, even if advanced metrics weren’t all that enamored with his glove. The changes he made in his approach at the plate appear sustainable, even if the .315/.383/.418 line he posted in 2016 is not. Even if he misses large chunks of 2017 due to injury, he is well worth the $9 million price tag.

And should the Tigers stumble across a capable replacement in center field this offseason, Maybin’s cheap contract makes him a hot commodity on the trade market. There are a lot of teams that would jump at the chance to acquire a player of his stature on a one-year deal; sure, he might not fetch multiple top prospects, but the Tigers could squeeze some value out of Maybin were they to trade him. Either way, picking up the option is a no-brainer.