Henning: Avila knows Tigers' issues aren't Ausmus' alone
What’s most interesting, or maybe unsettling, about the Tigers’ recent ills is the chatter.
It has been all about one man. All about Brad Ausmus.
He didn’t save his job with Sunday’s victory, which saw a supposedly dead-in-the-water club rally three times to beat the Padres, 7-5, at Petco Park.
In fact, Ausmus wasn’t in danger. The Tigers don’t believe their manager is their weak link. His boss, Tigers general manager Al Avila, doesn’t buy it, and neither does Tigers owner Chris Ilitch.
And they’re right.
This year’s Tigers team is roughly where the 1973 and ’74 Tigers were five and six years after Detroit won a World Series in 1968. It’s about at the same spot the ’89 and ’90 Tigers found themselves five and six years after Detroit’s last World Series parade flowed down Woodward Avenue.
The Tigers are dealing with a turnover cycle, which in this case is complicated by the fact so much money and so many guaranteed contracts were spent, and so many draft picks were coughed up, in a full-throttle push to earn late owner Mike Ilitch a World Series trophy he came so close to hugging.
But now the Tigers are dealing with the dark side of their dream. The team is aging. It is a club with a payroll so bloated it’s being taxed for overconsumption. Those contracts and those players are all but impossible to trade.
Meanwhile, younger, cheaper, more revitalized rosters are beating the Tigers at a young man’s game.
Changing managers won’t change realities unique to the Tigers. Ausmus, for sure, is still learning his job after three and a half years. If he manages for another 20 years, he’ll still be learning the managerial craft. But whatever panel of respectable baseball judges assesses his work, the likely verdict will be that Ausmus is losing no more games nor winning any more duels than would another manager, no matter how dug in some of the fan base remains that the Tigers are a single brilliant skipper away from knowing better times.
The same critics largely had the same take when Jim Leyland was here. But it wasn’t Leyland’s work that kept a team from winning the whole show, which should have happened in 2013 until Edgar Allan Poe decided to write a script for an eighth inning at Fenway Park. And it isn't because of any Ausmus managerial pratfalls that a team on June 26 has a 33-42 record.
Rather, it’s that 25-man crew known as a big-league active roster. This particular Tigers team, for all its expensive stars, for all its will and the grit serious followers see through nine innings, is now in a state of decay. It will take a few years to blow up a top-heavy roster and reseed a new wave of younger personnel. And at that point, it’s possible, if not probable, it can mesh with some promising farm pitching to make this team a reasonable playoff club, which today it isn’t close to resembling.
As these matters apply to Ausmus, Avila has had no illusions. He can always fire Ausmus and replace him with either of two coaches, Lloyd McClendon or Omar Vizquel, or with Gene Lamont, who is Ausmus’ dugout co-pilot.
But a GM understands nothing of substance will change except to appease a screaming portion of the fan base. That’s not enough reason to change skippers. In fact, it’s the worst of reasons when it’s players rather than a guy standing in a dugout who determine these final scores.
Another reason Avila will not fire Ausmus, at least in the near future, ties into upcoming events.
Avila will be talking trades with opposing GMs during the next five weeks as the July trade deadline approaches.
Avila will be open to any deal. To any defensible deal, that is. If he makes two or three trades, which is the least he’d prefer to make, he would hand his new manager a roster stripped of players who might make 2017 more palatable for fans and something other than a death warrant for an interim skipper.
The Tigers, though, are hoping to trade age and stature for youth and promise that likely will begin work in Detroit’s farm system.
That’s the last trick you want to pull on a new manager, particularly an interim man from Ausmus’s staff.
It doesn’t much help the incumbent, either. But there is enough understanding on Ausmus’ part, as well as on Avila’s, to make this new and inevitable direction more agreeable to the parties now in place.
This likely will be Avila’s policy until October when 2017 is in the dust and the Tigers ponder 2018 and beyond. Ausmus is on a one-year deal and might or might not be extended another season, depending upon what Avila and Chris Ilitch decide during the next three-plus months. Ausmus, for that matter, has time to contemplate if he cares to stick around for what are bound to be some lean years at Comerica Park.
This brings us to another hot potato near and dear to the fan base’s sword: Avila.
No quick fix
Not only must Ausmus go, a multitude of screechers insist, but Avila also should be exterminated as Tigers GM. This is so the old Tigers model can be junked and a new baseball product in Detroit might be designed minus any influence from Avila, who is rapidly becoming the fan base’s new pinata.
That might sound fair to the folks who’ve concluded Avila is their next nemesis, except, as with changing manager at midseason in 2017, nothing is likely to be gained, except for handing the critics a quenching gulp of blood.
If you bring in a new GM now, 22 months after Avila was asked to clean up a creaky roster with a dirigible as a payroll, you simply consign the supposed bright-light new guy to a painful process. Names are generally lacking here, except for guesses and grab-hat identification, but if the new Einstein is half as bright as he is imagined to be, he won’t for a moment take the Comerica Park gig.
It’s because this will require some years, this retooling of the Tigers. They won’t necessarily be ugly years. They won’t rival the Baseball Black Death a town knew from 1995 to about 2005, all because the Tigers probably will have enough young pitching to make this reconstruction process at least endurable.
But no supposed whizbang of a GM will quickly rearrange or replace furniture the Tigers took on when they tried to spend and trade and divest their way to a championship for Mike Ilitch. The market isn’t interested in the Tigers’ old, expensive flesh. And no amount of phone-call chicanery, or car-sales cajoling, which Avila critics are sure another GM could pull off, will induce rival GMs to take on talent and money other teams aren’t terribly interested in adding. Not when other options loom.
There will be a deal or two Avila can make during the coming days. But these aren’t likely to cheer fans when a buyers’ market already is ballooning with players who won’t necessarily fetch retail prices.
Which brings us back to Ausmus and to what might or might not be gained by changing skippers.
Avila would have fired Ausmus weeks ago had he thought his team wasn’t sweating and clawing at full throttle. But he has seen the precise opposite, and so have fans, at least those who are fairly judging effort.
If a new skipper comes aboard, the Tigers clubhouse — one of the best some of us have seen in years — would be torn asunder. You might, in fact, see a team ease off the throttle.
It isn’t worth a firing when nothing productive is likely to be realized.
The Tigers had a couple of great World Series shots and came up empty. But, again, to cite some past Tigers history, this 2017 team is reminiscent of teams from the early '70s, or the late '80s.
A new version of Tigers baseball is about to take shape. Give it reasonable time to evolve.
Brad Ausmus’ record
2014: 90-72, first in American League Central, lost to Orioles 3-0 in first round
2015: 74-87, fifth in AL Central, no playoffs
2016: 86-75, second in AL Central, no playoffs
2017: 33-42, fourth in AL Central