The Detroit Tigers are determined to win the World Series after two near failures the past two seasons. They will attempt this with a new manager with no experience who will have the toughest job in the big leagues.
Imagine being a rookie manager for a major league ball club. You step into a situation where you inherit team that has, arguably, both baseball’s best pitcher and best hitter. You work for an owner who is unabashed in his desire to bring a world championship to his beloved hometown. Apart from the stars mentioned earlier, you take over a club that has many of the remnants of a team which has won 3 consecutive division titles, played in three consecutive American League championship series, and reached the 2012 World Series. To top it off, there is a passionate fan base in one of America’s best sports cities that remembers you fondly from your playing days. Sounds pretty appealing, doesn’t it? Well, it is in many ways, but this writer would argue that new Tigers manager Brad Ausmus is stepping into the toughest job in baseball, either manager or player. The 2014 Detroit managerial job is a firestorm of difficulty mixed in with a potentially lethal dose of high expectation and a dangerous dash of the unproven.
The goal here is not to get you to shed a tear for Ausmus, for no undue sympathy is deserved nor likely desired from the man himself. It is impossible to read or hear anything about Ausmus without getting a sense of his intellect as well as the respect he already has from many of his peers as well as those on the executive level of the game. The man comes across as extremely smart and impressive. He knows full well what he is getting into.
Exactly what is Ausmus getting into? Well, he takes over a team that has parted ways with a 100 RBI per year producer who never missed a game in his two seasons in Detroit and, perhaps coincidentally, has hit in front of a league MVP for the last three consecutive seasons. In addition to that, this player-Prince Fielder-will now take his consistency of run production to American League rival Texas, one of the other serious challengers for AL supremacy. Along with Fielder, Detroit also allowed consistent producers and 2013 opening day middle infielders Omar Infante and Johnny Peralta to leave. This trio alone knocked in almost 27% of Detroit’s 796 total runs last year. The Tigers embarrassment of riches in starting pitching is also a bit less embarrassing this season, as steady starter Doug Fister was dealt to the Washington Nationals for utility men and prospects in a trade that angered much of Tigers Nation.
The expectations in Detroit, however, have not lessened to the same extent. Owner Mike Ilitch and general manager Dave Dombrowski know that nothing less than a World Series championship will quench the thirst of not only Tigers fans, but the two men running the ship as well. Detroit has been close, with the World Series loss in 2012 as well as one in 2006 during the tenure of Dombrowski. It is not only the denizens of Tiger Town that expect Detroit to reach the Fall Classic this season. Many in the national media still see the Tigers as the favorites in the Central division as well as the American League despite the changes. In fact, it is not completely uncommon to find those who feel Detroit has improved from his 2013 edition.
Clearly, Detroit feels that it needs to tighten its purse strings now and in the near future, especially with the need to resign 2013 Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer as well as Miguel Cabrera just around the corner. Additionally, the theme of “addition by subtraction” has evolved after the Red Sox shed big names and salaries after their disastrous 2012 season and went on to win it all in 2013. The difference from this vantage point is that the 2012 Red Sox got rid of great talent such as Carl Crawford, for example, who had not performed well in Boston. Further, it was evident that manager Bobby Valentine was not the man to steer the Red Sox ship. Neither of these is analogous to the 2014 Tigers. The players they lost were very productive and there is no question that former Manager Jim Leyland was popular in the clubhouse.
The optimism is not totally misplaced, however. The Tigers still have two of the previous three Cy Young Award winners in Scherzer and Justin Verlander as well as Miguel Cabrera, the two time league MVP. Additionally, starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez actually was the best ERA hurler on the staff last year. Detroit’s obvious weakness at the back end of the bullpen seems to have been addressed by signing proven free agent closer Joe Nathan. Gold Glove candidate José Iglesias will man the shortstop position from day one this season. Detroit received Ian Kinsler from Texas in the Fielder trade, who will help with badly needed speed on one of baseball’s most slow footed lineups. There were also the signings of outfielder Rajai Davis and reliever Joba Chamberlain to add depth and flexibility.
The Detroit job would be a lot to chew on for any new manager, much less one who has no managerial experience whatsoever. That doesn’t just mean managing in the big leagues, that means no… full season… managerial experience…anywhere… ever. Obviously, as John Farrell proved last season in Boston, minimal managerial experience is not a requisite to success in the first year with a new club. However, it seems a little bit of a stretch-not to mention unfair-to expect someone who is coming into a veteran team set in its ways to simply pick it all up and learn on the fly while keeping things running cohesively.
This is not to say Ausmus can’t do it, but in a season that will be labeled a failure unless Detroit reaches and wins the World Series, it’s asking an awful lot.
Moreover, the Tigers are going with two younger prospects in key positions. Drew Smyly, a left-handed middle reliever last season, will move into the starting rotation, replacing Fister. Highly touted prospect Nick Castellanos is expected to take over at third base as Cabrera moves to first. Both are talented and there is excitement in the organization and fan base. However, Smyly’s next victory as a starting pitcher and Castellano’s next RBI will be, respectively, the first for each in the major leagues. Again, not saying it can’t happen for these two talented youngsters. It’s just an incredibly big expectation from both in a season where nothing short of playing in October will do.
Ausmus deserves the full support of all in Tiger Nation despite the cautious skepticism of some, including this writer. If he can skipper Detroit into the postseason again-a place where Tiger fans have recently been accustomed to spending their late fall-and improve upon last season’s disappointing finish, he will absolutely be deserving of all of the accolades heaped his way prior to his ever having managed a single major league game.
Despite the nice paycheck and talented team, the guess here is that most similarly situated baseball men would not want to sit on the hot seat the inexperienced Tiger manager will occupy in the first managing gig of a career. If the Tigers fail to reach the World Series or, heaven forbid, win their division (which they only did by a single game last year), much of the blame will undoubtedly fall on Ausmus, especially with Prince Fielder no longer around as the whipping boy for all things negative in Detroit. If the Tigers are to surpass last year’s league championship appearance and win their first World Series since 1984, many will likely devalue the work of Ausmus, as it will likely be seen as a team being so close for a long time and that was “due”. It doesn’t seem fair and it surely won’t be easy. Then again, nothing worthwhile ever is.
There is no tougher gig in the major leagues in 2014.