Wojo: Tigers' ultimate fate rests with GM Al Avila

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Tigers center fielder Mikie Mahtook, left, reacts after he makes a catch to end the top of the fifth inning. The Tigers defeated the Kansas City Royals 5-3 Tuesday night.

Detroit — A big pitch here, a big pop there, and painstakingly, the Tigers are trying to turn this thing around. There’s a long, long way to go, but there’s value in the effort, and theoretically still time on the calendar.

For all the obligatory shrieking about the manager, it’s generally decided by the players, usually the star ones. It was on this night, as Miguel Cabrera slammed a three-run homer and Justin Verlander pitched seven strong innings, and the Tigers beat the Royals 5-3 to open what might be their last big home stand.

After a 1-6 road trip and an eight-game losing streak, this has the feel of Judgment June, and the Tigers (34-42) actually climbed within six games of the Indians. Even the bullpen, led by lefty closer Justin Wilson, did its job and quelled the noise, at least for a day or so.

The game, like the season, was a lesson in strife. Verlander surrendered hits to the first five batters — several were weakly struck — and the Tigers fell behind 3-0. It was over before it began, and then it wasn’t. Hey, if you’re looking for handy metaphors, try that one.

“You just pull from your experience,” Verlander said. “It could’ve been really easy to let that fall apart. I was able to slow the game down and see the bigger picture, and realize it’s just the first inning.”

Metaphorically, it’s the fifth inning or later for the Tigers, and they’ve heard the howls from fans and media. Before the game, Brad Ausmus talked calmly about the scrutiny he faces, and how he deals with it. Some didn’t think he’d survive the miserable road trip with his job intact, but the truth is, if the Tigers don’t turn this around, there’ll be enough blame to spread from here to Petoskey.

Searing seat

One guy will be charged with fixing it, and it’s not the manager or the star pitcher or the star slugger. It’s GM Al Avila, whose seat will be just as hot as Ausmus’, if not hotter.

You know who probably agrees with that assessment? Avila himself. He has praised Ausmus, deflected blame from the fourth-year manager and shown no inclination to fire him. As the Tigers opened a 10-game home stand, it felt like one more chance for a reset, and it now seems certain Ausmus’ fate will play out to the end of the season.

That’s fine, not because Ausmus deserves it, but because it’s doubtful his dismissal would change much.

Al Avila

People can shout for his firing — based on his mediocre record, understandable — but it’s not really a new manager they crave. It’s accountability, served with a pound or two of flesh.

At some point, owner Chris Ilitch might get frustrated enough to demand a change, but it’s not a real strategy unless you have a manager-in-waiting. When Francisco Rodriguez finally was released, that made complete sense, and wasn’t done out of anger, but necessity. He was wrecked here, and if nothing else, it gave the Tigers another chance to assess reliever Bruce Rondon, who pitched a scoreless inning Tuesday night.

There’s no urgency to assess whether Omar Vizquel or Lloyd McClendon could boost the club. No, the guy who will determine the future of this team is Avila, and that’s what should make Tigers fans nervous. Not because he can’t do it, but because he hasn’t done it before.

Avila tried to make trades in the offseason and the most notable move was a poor one, dealing Cameron Maybin and leaving a void in center field that Mikie Mahtook is just starting to fill. Mahtook has gotten hot and made a spectacular catch to swipe an extra-base hit from Salvador Perez. And to be fair, Avila’s acquisition of his son, Alex, turned out to be tremendous.

All the Tigers were on the market then, and Avila said his phone line is open again. The problem is, it might not be a strong market for a slugger like J.D. Martinez, and the hefty contracts, no-trade clauses and iconic statuses for guys like Verlander, Cabrera, Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler are problematic. Wilson and Alex Avila might be the most viable trade chips.

“If there’s any interest out there, I have to open myself up to being flexible and listen to what might come our way,” Avila said last week. “I’m not going to be out there pushing anybody, by any means.”

In the next few weeks, he might have no choice, push or be pushed. I said this when Dave Dombrowski was fired and it remains true: Avila may be a seasoned baseball guy with great interpersonal skills, but can he be a ruthless deal-maker?

He who hesitates ...

He waited a long time before jettisoning Rodriguez, an ode to the closer’s respected status. He has not expressed concern about Victor Martinez’s spot at cleanup, which will rise again with Martinez expected to return today after an irregular heartbeat. Avila has been exceedingly patient with many, including Anibal Sanchez, who earned another shot by accepting a stint in Toledo, and has pitched well since returning.

Ausmus hasn’t proven to be a difference-maker, but with an aging team of underperforming players, it’s hard to tell if he’s an ill fit here, or ill-suited anywhere. This much is clear: The Tigers will need change, and Ausmus and Avila have not yet shown they can execute positive change.

Could the Tigers get hot at home now? Sure they could. They’ve done it before. Heck, every team in baseball seemingly has done it before. Three weeks ago, the Royals were 26-34, then won 11 of 14.

Maintaining a positive demeanor is always the challenge, and the Tigers are vigilant in that regard.

“These guys have been great,” Ausmus said. “The energy’s been good, they’re pulling for each other, they care about the right things.”

Ausmus maintains a pleasant serenity that’s admirable and surprising, considering the Tigers have been beyond aggravating at times. With his contract expiring anyway, he isn’t going to change — a strength disguised as a weakness, or perhaps vice-versa.

As he sat in the home dugout before the game, he sounded unalarmed in the midst of a stagger that could lead to a trade-deadline sell-off.

“Losing affects your morale, but I don’t worry about whether I’m gonna be fired or not,” Ausmus said. “Maybe I’ve got thick skin, maybe I’ve gotten thicker skin since I’ve been here, but I can’t control it. I was fortunate enough to play a long time in the major leagues, I’ll be fine regardless of what happens. … Nowadays with social media and talk radio, most managers are getting scrutinized, and often there’s people that want them fired. That’s the environment, and you’ve gotta be comfortable with it or you’ve gotta be able to ignore it.”

Ausmus’ laidback nature served him well through 18 seasons as a major-leaguer. And when he looks at a roster boasting so many accomplished veterans, he doesn’t see much benefit in a clubhouse pep rally, or an epic rant.

“Because of the length of the season and the number of games, unlike football where you can rally the troops once a week, meetings become very mundane and tiresome and often fall on deaf ears,” Ausmus said. “In my experience even as a player, if the effort is there, the care is there and the work is getting done, there’s not a lot you can do.”

That’s a frank admission from a major-league manager, that he can’t do a lot to influence players’ productivity. It’s also an honest one, which is why the scrutiny will shift to Avila soon enough. The narrow view is, the Tigers must play much better to salvage the season, and Ausmus’ decisions will be critically judged. The larger view is, the decisions made — or not made — by Avila will have a deeper impact, the scrutiny that matters more.