Wojo: Ausmus has a chance with retooled bullpen

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Brad Ausmus

Detroit — It was his fault, even when it wasn’t. Brad Ausmus heard it all the time, as the Tigers plummeted to last place and the second-year manager couldn’t do much about it.

He doesn’t bunt enough! He bunts too much! He pulls his pitchers too soon! He leaves the starter in too long! Why won’t he kick dirt on the umpire?!

By late last season, Ausmus pretty much assumed he’d be fired. One TV outlet even reported it, and in a strange way, that might have helped him. Al Avila was miffed by the report and insisted no decision was made, and that became the first test of the new GM’s ability to evaluate without influence from popular (or media) opinion.

Ausmus got a reprieve, and I’m sure it’ll last until, oh, midway through the second week of the season, when the first- and second-guessing begins anew. That’s the life of a manager, especially the manager of a team with a huge payroll, and Ausmus accepts it. Scrutiny will remain pointed because in a productive offseason, the Tigers addressed many of the issues that plagued them, including adding three bullpen arms — Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, Justin Wilson.

No matter what you think of Ausmus, you have to admit it was difficult to judge him on last season, with key players injured, the bullpen collapsing and the Tigers selling at the trade deadline. I’d even go so far as to suggest this — Ausmus might be back for the very reason Dave Dombrowski is gone.

Dombrowski tried but never fixed the bullpen, which meant Ausmus never really could prove he knew how to manage a bullpen, which meant Avila probably felt he couldn’t fully assess him. Fair enough.

“Honestly, the experience of supposedly getting fired hardens you,” Ausmus said. “Until you go through it, you don’t really know what it’s like. I mean, it was basically a foregone conclusion at the end of the season I’d be gone. I’m not hardened toward anyone in particular, but in terms of being able to handle it, I’m more Teflon-coated.”

No bullpen to run

That’s good because, at times, Ausmus seemed to shift with the whims, and his inexperience showed. If it had cost him his job, you could understand. But it’s not totally fair when forced to trot out guys like Ian Krol, Tom Gorzelanny, Al Alburquerque and Neftali Feliz , especially after Joakim Soria was traded. The only relievers you can reasonably say over-performed were Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy.

We can gripe all we want about the occasional ill-advised bunt attempt or a misguided hit-and-run. Those moves are fun to debate, but in the grand scheme of a long season, usually irrelevant. A manager’s most important job, outside of maintaining a cohesive clubhouse, is running the bullpen. Ausmus had no bullpen to run, which didn’t automatically grant him a third season, but made it easier to justify.

Bernard vows to keep fighting to make Tigers

Some of the bullpen trouble was misfortune — Joe Nathan blew out his arm in the opener, Bruce Rondon didn’t develop and pretty much all the plug-in pieces failed — and some of it was poor signings. And all of it combined to make Ausmus look worse, with no defined roles and little certainty among the starters, until Justin Verlander regained his form down the stretch.

“I think it was the right decision bringing Brad back,” Verlander said. “I think he was a victim of the stuff we’ve talked about, the injuries and the deficits we had. There’s nothing he could do about that. I’m sure if you ask him, he’s learned a lot.”

In a roundabout way, Verlander is another reason Ausmus is back, and a reason the Tigers spent $272 million to reload. Rebuilding is never an option for Mike Ilitch, but Verlander’s bounce-back — 2.80 ERA after the All-Star break — provided hope that the window of contention could be pried back open.

During the winter caravan last week, there was a lot of wood-knocking — the Tigers felt so good about their improved health, they didn’t want to jinx it. Verlander said he feels better than he has in three years, and was able go through his entire offseason workout program. Same for Miguel Cabrera, who isn’t coming off surgery for the first time in three years. Same for Victor Martinez and Anibal Sanchez, who were hampered last season.

Trying to emulate Royals

The plan in January can be different than the one in April, but the Tigers should have Verlander, Sanchez, newcomer Jordan Zimmermann and youngster Daniel Norris in the rotation. Then they plan to line up Justin Wilson, Lowe and Rodriguez in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.

“I will never blame my players because I know they’re trying, and we were asking guys to do something they weren’t quite ready for,” Ausmus said of last season’s bullpen. “A lot of those guys now will be slotted down later. Every manager would love to have what the Royals had, that’s a dream. Because everyone in the bullpen knows when they’re going in, and everyone in the ballpark knows who’s coming in and what inning.”

Henning: Tigers' chances hinge on pitching, big bats

The Tigers don’t have the Royals’ dream bullpen, and they haven’t recaptured the favorite’s role in the AL Central, which they ruled for four seasons before Kansas City won it all. But if you recall, manager Ned Yost got a whole lot smarter when the Royals put together their fantastic bullpen. That’s something else Avila acknowledged — adding arms was more important than subtracting a manager.

“I told Al at the end of the year, the easy thing to do would’ve been to just let me go,” Ausmus said. “The hard thing to do was to keep me. But I think he thought he did what was the best baseball decision. And I think general managers and presidents in all sports, ultimately they can’t let public opinion decide the course of the team.”

Ausmus was relieved for the reprieve. More than that, he’s hoping for relief from the new relievers.