Henning: Avila-Ausmus relationship adversarial at times
Sarasota, Fla. — Tigers followers with 30 years of institutional memory might recall the Sparky Anderson-Bill Lajoie relationship. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof.
The two men delivered a world championship to Detroit. The two men also were not especially fond of each other.
Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland, who like Anderson and Lajoie are part of the Tigers’ general manager-manager lineage, likewise were not buddies. Not even close.
What was true of the four men is they all needed each other. Lajoie had helped scout and build a roster a manager who had earlier won a couple of World Series could optimize. Dombrowski, by the middle of the past decade, had done the same at Comerica Park and needed at the helm a man of Leyland’s savvy and crust.
But they did not work together seamlessly. Losing streaks. Bad bullpens. Lineup holes. Bench choices that were less than ideal or appetizing — imagine, strictly from a human nature perch, how quickly friction could build between two people with eyes on the same goal but with different tasks in getting there.
That can be especially true as spring camp’s days ebb and a 25-man Opening Day roster is sealed.
Not everyone knows the GM makes final calls. A team’s manager obviously is a consultant and co-pilot here, but rosters are manufactured and approved by GMs who then hand their assemblies to the skipper.
You could see Sunday at Ed Smith Stadium how this plays out. And how occasional duels can, and must, be part of the process.
Al Avila knows he has a problem in center field largely of his making. There are lots of contestants but no real everyday option. He also knows Omar Infante, a second baseman who has played well enough to make the team but who has no real position while Ian Kinsler is here, has played some center and has survived.
As batting practice carried on ahead of Sunday’s Tigers-Orioles game, Avila mentioned that Infante was probably worth mulling as a possible platoon option.
Avila later headed for the batting cage. Ausmus, taking a break for one of his daily delights — the pregame media briefing — stepped to the visitor’s dugout for a typical batch of questions, which Sunday began with queries about J.D. Martinez and his sprained foot.
Ausmus eventually was asked about Infante. Considering the fact no one has grabbed the job, might he be worth a shot in center?
Ausmus seemed irked. The manager knows he has two weeks to get a team ready. This isn’t a time for experimentation at an up-the-middle position.
“We’ve got many people in center field,” he said, referring to the four or five players who are auditioning there, “but there’s only one center fielder.
“Quite frankly, that’s not going to happen.”
Later he said, with a grin, that if anyone saw Infante in center field “you’ll know Al forced my hand.”
Reader advisory: Don’t over-imagine here. There isn’t any rift between Avila and Ausmus. If there were — and it’s not going to happen because of Omar Infante — then similar discussions about a hundred or more personnel issues long ago would have sabotaged the Avila-Ausmus tandem.
Rather, what it probably best underscores is that baseball decisions aren’t unilaterally made. And rarely is there complete agreement. The GM might be supreme allied commander when it comes to rosters. But managers are at the heart of roster conversations — and squabbles — that involve coaches, assistant GMs (David Chadd, for example), scouts, etc.
The center field matter is particularly thorny for all involved.
Avila knew he had a problem at the end of 2016. Cameron Maybin had done a superb job in center and had put together a career season for the Tigers. He was also going to cost $9 million in 2017 if the Tigers said yes to his contract option.
The Tigers were well past the luxury-tax threshold and needed to lop salary that, in the case of Maybin, would have accumulated a few more million dollars in luxury-tax penalties.
Maybin has a history of injuries. He also batted .315 last season, nearly 60 points above his career average (.259). Avila has obliging owners in the Ilitches but they needed to get real about costs. Avila knew he had to deal Maybin. And if he couldn’t trade him, Maybin would have been non-tendered — not offered a 2017 contract.
Only one team among 30, the Angels, had interest in Maybin and his relatively heavy contract at a time when teams have become more picky about players and prices. The Tigers dealt him, knowing, as did a manager named Ausmus, that center field was going to be ticklish.
And it is. The Tigers have a talented rookie in JaCoby Jones, but Jones likely won’t be ready for prime-time chores by Opening Day. The team is trying to get by in the meantime with platoon pairings that aren’t terribly exciting.
Consider how much easier Ausmus’ job would be this spring if Maybin were here. Center field would be a non-issue.
But a GM has obligations to his boss, who happens to be an owner who was all aboard when it came time for last fall’s mandated cuts. That was especially true when Jones, who potentially is more of a two-way weapon than Maybin, was viewed as ripening fruit who might help early in 2017.
If anyone believes a GM and a manager were expected to see this decision as ideal — or as being remotely comfortable for a manager making out a lineup card — welcome to a Nickelodeon cartoon.
This stuff is real. It is occasionally tense. And it is an essential, unavoidable, reality of the big-league game.