Wojo: By keeping Ausmus, Avila puts pressure on himself

Bob Wojnowski, The Detroit News
Al Avila and Brad Ausmus

Detroit — Tigers GM Al Avila alleviated the immediate pressure on Brad Ausmus, and in the process, put it on himself. Twice now, Avila has retained his manager after missing the playoffs, and this time it comes with an unspoken acknowledgement — Ausmus was hampered by the roster he was given.

It’s not a bold move or a wildly popular move, but it’s a fair move to bring Ausmus back for a fourth season. It might even be the right move, as long as Avila does a better job assembling the team.

If there was a proven candidate available, such as when the Indians plucked Terry Francona, a change would be urged. But as with many elements of this Tigers puzzle, it’s hard to fully evaluate Ausmus because of extenuating circumstances. Those who simply dislike some of his in-game strategies — cherry-picking the bad ones and dismissing the decent ones — won’t be ecstatic.

Is Ausmus a difference-maker? No, but realistically, most managers aren’t. The Royals’ Ned Yost went from the hottest seat to the highest seat, winning the World Series primarily because he was given an unbeatable bullpen, not because he morphed into a genius.

In the larger picture, Ausmus committed no obvious fire-able offense, unless you consider his calm, unflappable demeanor less than inspiring. The Tigers did play unfocused at times, marked by base-running and defensive gaffes.

But they also played most of the season with three-fifths of their expected rotation either injured or ineffective, and relied extensively on three rookie starters. Their lineup was heavy at the top and slow all over. And yet, they slightly outperformed preseason prognostications, going from last place to second place and finishing 86-75. There was no notable discord in the clubhouse, and no overt sign of concern from ownership.

Owner's approval

Avila said Wednesday he received the go-ahead from Mike Ilitch to keep Ausmus, and cited several reasons. The team continued to battle through injuries and made a 12-win improvement over last season, and the staff worked well with the young pitchers.

Henning: Ausmus is only as good as players he manages

At the same time, Avila hedged his bet by not extending the contract beyond next season. And he copped to the obvious, that poor free-agent signings were his responsibility, and that made it tougher on Ausmus.

“I gotta put all the blame on myself, those guys who didn’t perform, that’s on me,” Avila said. “To see what the manager did with them during the season, that’s even more reason to say he did an outstanding job getting through the tough times.”

This also could be an indication Chris Ilitch is taking a larger role as his parents, Mike and Marian, recede from the spotlight. I suspect Chris Ilitch will be more pragmatic and less impulsive than his father, but hopefully that doesn’t mean he’s passive. Or worse, frugal.

The Tigers’ approximate $200-million payroll was fourth-highest in baseball, and there aren’t many ways to trim it with the gaudy long-term contracts. The Tigers aren’t trading Miguel Cabrera. I doubt they’ll trade Justin Verlander after his superb season. I doubt there’s a major market for Justin Upton because of his contract, and there’s no market for Victor Martinez, Anibal Sanchez or Mike Pelfrey.

The Ilitches can’t be pleased with another postseason absence and attendance decline at Comerica Park. But if there’s blame to be affixed, it should be shared, and to his credit, Avila isn’t shirking responsibility.

“It’s not as simple as, you didn’t get into the playoffs, so hey, you gotta whack a guy and move forward,” Avila said. “Sometimes you have to continue to follow the course.”

Let the breeze in

Once again, I’ll trot out the window analogy. With their young pitchers, led by rookie revelation Michael Fulmer, the Tigers’ window of contention hasn’t closed. In fact, I’d argue the promise of Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd essentially saved Ausmus’ job. 

But someone needs to yank open the window and air things out. Slugging home runs and slogging around the bases will win you games, but not the tightest games, and not consistently. That’s why the Tigers’ fluctuations were so extreme, from offensive outbursts to getting shut out 12 times.

Injuries were an issue, but every team deals with them. Losing Nick Castellanos, J. D. Martinez and Cameron Maybin for various stretches was a problem. The larger problem, though, was Avila’s sketchy offseason.

Chris McCosky's final Tigers grades

To shore up the bullpen, he paid $11 million over two years for Mark Lowe. Unmitigated disaster.

To flesh out the rotation, he paid $16 million over two years for Pelfrey. Unmitigated disaster.

To pump up the rotation, Avila ponied up $110 million for Jordan Zimmermann. Paying so much for a 30-year-old starter coming from the NL was questionable. It looked great at first, but then Zimmermann had a series of missteps and injuries, and provided little help down the stretch.

To pump up the lineup, Avila paid $132 million over six years for Justin Upton, a bold attempt to plug the left-field hole. It probably was pushed by ownership, and after a horrible start, Upton was scorching at times, finishing with 31 home runs and 87 RBIs. Ultimately, he was another one-dimensional player whose production didn’t match his compensation.

The trades for Francisco Rodriguez and Maybin were far better than any of Avila’s signings, and he’ll have to pull off more prudent deals. I doubt he’ll have the chance to offer gigantic contracts in what’s considered a weak free-agent market.

It won’t be easy for Avila to significantly alter the lineup, and in Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, both Martinez’s, Nick Castellanos, Upton and Maybin, there’s still the core of a potent batting order. But there’s not enough speed and not enough defense, and not nearly enough proven pitching. The Tigers need a veteran starter so it’s not all on the youngsters. They need more bullpen arms because they always need more bullpen arms.

Avila and the Tigers are well aware of those flaws, which is partly why they didn’t pin everything on Ausmus. If it’s not all Ausmus’ fault — and it isn’t — scrutiny shifts back to the GM and the players, where it generally belongs.