Wojo: Decision to keep Ausmus puts pressure on Avila

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Brad Ausmus got a reprieve, to the surprise of many and the chagrin of some. It’s hard to say he earned it, and hard to figure out the Tigers’ plan. The only thing we know for certain is, GM Al Avila is doubling down by standing up for his guy.

Avila is showing decisiveness at the end of a rocky, indecisive season. He recognized Ausmus was saddled with a roster that was flawed, injured and ultimately dismantled, and it’s good to have perspective, generally.

But is it good for the team? That’s debatable. Ausmus didn’t deserve all the blame, although that’s usually how the manager’s job is viewed. Avila and Ausmus earned the trust of Mike Ilitch and both still could do well here, with the Tigers’ mix of high-end and young-end talent.

You hope Avila knows what he’s doing, because he just lifted the heaviest pressure off his manager and slapped it directly on his own back. The newly minted GM already was facing the enormous task of restocking the starting rotation and rebuilding the bullpen. Now he added scrutiny by retaining a manager who hasn’t won a playoff game in two years, and whose team plummeted to last place.

“Mr. Ilitch put me in this position and basically allowed me to make the decision,” Avila said Saturday, ending speculation that Ausmus was doomed. “I had to weigh a lot of things — positives and negatives.”

The speculation was rooted in the Tigers’ failures, and the assumption was, after Dave Dombrowski was fired Aug. 4, his manager would follow. Dombrowski was culpable for the botched bullpen and rotation roulette, but he had 14 solid years leading the organization, while Ausmus has managed for two. If one went, the other would go, right? If not, Dombrowski would look like a scapegoat.

Showing trust

Well, this is my theory: Ilitch liked the structure and stable culture Dombrowski created and knew he had a respected second-in-command in Avila, who worked with Dombrowski all 14 years. Ilitch also suspected Dombrowski was looking for more, his name speculatively linked to other teams.

So if the owner was going to make the rash decision to broom Dombrowski and promote Avila, he couldn’t very easily refuse Avila’s first major move. The new GM was one of Ausmus’ biggest proponents two years ago, and he knew any manager would struggle to handle the Tigers’ ragged pitching staff.

It may be a tough sell to the 2.7 million fans who came to Comerica Park this season, but I bet it was easier to sell Ilitch on keeping Ausmus. The owner trusted Avila enough to get rid of Dombrowski, so he had to trust him on this. If not, what was the point in promoting Avila?

There are other factors. Maybe the rumored replacement, former Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, wasn’t that appealing. I thought he’d fit well, after six division titles in 13 seasons, but he did lose 90-plus games each of his final four seasons as the Twins rebuilt.

Ilitch is never interested in a rebuild, and with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, a rejuvenated Justin Verlander and rising young talent, the Tigers don’t need a full rebuild. They need pitching, lots of it, and have more flexibility, via free-agency and trade, to acquire it.

Roster liabilities

Avila specifically cited Ausmus’ ability to nurture young talent, notably catcher James McCann, as an asset. The manager also had the backing of veteran players, who appreciated Ausmus’ low-key demeanor — ironically, the very trait that bothers fans who question whether he can inspire and ignite a team.

A lot of those vague concerns are typical of any losing baseball team. My goodness, how many times did fans cry the game had passed Jim Leyland by, right up until they cried for him to come back. Baseball managers get the most scrutiny for the smallest issues of any leader in any sport. I’ve said that forever, long before the Summer of Ausmus Angst.

A football coach isn’t picked apart every day, only after games once a week. How many strategic moves in basketball and hockey are dissected like a manager’s daily decisions to bunt or not bunt, to pull a pitcher or not pull a pitcher?

This is not a defense of Ausmus. I questioned moves and the team’s sloppy baserunning. I thought he should have been dismissed mainly because there wasn’t a strong enough reason to bring him back. Was Gardenhire’s availability reason enough to fire him? If it was, they should’ve done it before the season.

Avila found reasons to keep Ausmus, from player support to his steady demeanor to, perhaps, the owner’s wishes. (Although I doubt Ilitch endorsed it simply to save money, with another year on the contract.) I also don’t think the lack of an extension, so far, damages Ausmus.

You know what damages a manager? A horrid bullpen. Injured stars. Losing too many top pitchers — Max Scherzer, David Price, Verlander and Anibal Sanchez (sidelined for long stretches) — in too short a period.

Some of this season’s woes are on Ausmus, no doubt. Going forward, it’s now on Avila, who assumed more responsibility by backing his manager. It was a decisive move that isn’t popular and might not work, but as a murky season lurches to its conclusion, at least there’s evidence someone’s in charge.