Stepping into a job that was just occupied by a likely Hall-of-Famer is never easy, and the challenges are compounded when the team you take over is in win-now mode, but thin on young reinforcements, and built on an aging core. But that’s exactly the situation that Brad Ausmus walked into, taking over for Jim Leyland and a team that just came off a loss in the ALCS, a year after losing in the World Series.
And now, a little more than two years in, with the team continuing its decline, fans are frustrated and want action. This organization has been in win-now mode and had many so-close moments over the last decade, that the expectations have been raised. World Series or bust has been the organization’s mantra, and fans have followed along.
But no manager can make up for a team that has a core of players getting up in age, and has lost other key members to trades and free agency. Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera are 33. Anibal Sanchez is 32. Victor Martinez is 37. Max Scherzer is a National. David Price is with the Red Sox.
And the youngsters that the Tigers do have might be contributing, but are unlikely to be future MVP candidates. Nick Castellanos still might be destined for the outfield due to defense. Jose Iglesias is a magician in the field, but will never hit like Jhonny Peralta. Anthony Gose isn’t Curtis Granderson, or even Austin Jackson. None of the young arms the Tigers acquired at the deadline last season are ready – Michael Fulmer is lacking a third pitch, Daniel Norris is off to a rocky start in Toledo after back issues, and Matt Boyd still hasn’t found success at the big league level. And as has been noted, the Tigers were so desperate to plug holes the past few years to compete that they largely emptied the prospect cupboard, so there isn’t much in the way of homegrown talent coming up.
That’s a long and detailed way of saying the Tigers aren’t as good as they were in 2011, or 2013.
Don’t like that answer? Insist the Tigers still have talent. Tell that to Fangraphs, CBS Sports, and SB Nation, all of whom predicted the Tigers would land outside of the postseason in 2016. At ESPN, only two of 31 “experts” predicted the Tigers would win the AL Central. Only one of seven at USA Today. Most analytic forecast services pegged the club somewhere between 84 and 78 wins – not terrible, but also not a clear World Series contender, especially not when you have the defending World Series champs in your division and teams like Chicago and Cleveland that have made upgrades and are aiming to compete.
But that reality doesn’t meet the needs of the Tigers fans, who are frustrated with the losing, and want action, and the action they want is to fire Ausmus (to be fair, this is a blanket statement, but overall sentiment even if not absolute has been trending this way dating back to last summer).
To be fair, Ausmus probably isn’t blameless in the matter. He’s had a continual focus on being aggressive baserunners, despite not having the players to execute it, and the Tigers have been one of the worst baserunning teams in baseball. His roster compilation has prioritized defensive flexibility over offensive capability, frequently leaving his team struggling to find ways to score runs late in games. And the pastime that is as old as the game itself, he’s made plenty of questionable moves with his bullpen. Even in today’s meltdown, when using top lefty Justin Wilson to start the eighth inning, it could be reasonably questioned why go to Wilson after he pitched (and struggled) each of the last two days.
But if you’re looking for the quick 80/20 assessment… Ausmus’s “lack of fire” in the dugout and in front of the media isn’t the team’s downfall, nor is it the aggressive baserunning or using bad reliever Y over bad reliever X. That comes down to the players on the team.
I said entering the year that the Tigers *could* compete, but everything would have to go right for them. Verlander would have to be on his game. One of the young pitchers would need to make a leap. The lineup would need to produce like one of the best in baseball. And some things have gone right - V-Mart is on fire, Castellanos is among the league leaders in most hitting categories, and the bullpen has been improved (today’s meltdown not withstanding). But, free agent acquisitions Mike Pelfrey and Justin Upton haven’t produced, Verlander and Sanchez both have ERA’s around 6 and FIP’s around 5. And no young pitcher has emerged yet.
Impatience and desire to win can often lead to action, and when you can’t fire a whole team, the manager falls squarely in the crosshairs, which means Ausmus’s days as the Tigers’ skipper are probably numbered. He probably doesn’t deserve to be fired, but he also hasn’t done enough to make a clear case to keep it, and key players that have defended him can only shield him for so long.
But regardless of what the Tigers do at the manager spot, it won’t change all the aforementioned facts. The Tigers are an aging team, lacking in up-and-coming talent, and in a sport primarily made up of individual matchups, a new coach or leader likely won’t change all of that.
Action can and likely will appease the masses. That is, right up until the new man in the hot seat keeps the wrong player on the bench, or uses the wrong reliever, or sees his team swept due to cold bats and bad pitching. And then it’ll start all over again.