Henning: Ausmus likely to return to manage Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Brad Ausmus

Detroit – No decision will be made ahead of the Tigers’ final game of 2016, whether that game is the scheduled finale, Oct. 2 at Atlanta, or part of a postseason swing the team yet hopes to secure.

But within 24 hours of Detroit’s 2016 baseball farewell, it is expected Tigers general manager Al Avila will announce if there will be a contract extension for manager Brad Ausmus.

A fourth season or more for Ausmus is by no means a certainty. Avila and Ausmus must talk seriously and comprehensively about 2016 and what must change in 2017 in terms of day-to-day matters and issues this particular Tigers manager can affect.

That was the stipulation a year ago when Avila, barely a month after replacing fired former GM Dave Dombrowski, surprisingly retained a skipper whose team had landed in last place. Ausmus was invited to work the third year of his three-year deal but not before he was handed a critique sheet filled with demands and changes the Tigers believe Ausmus fulfilled, even during a bipolar baseball year that has seen the Tigers win and lose, delight and depress, as they try and wrest from the Orioles or Blue Jays a wildcard playoff spot that today belongs to those two clubs.

Avila was asked this week about Ausmus’ status and why, if a 47-year-old manager were returning in 2017, the Tigers would not announce it confidently and with a sense of celebration ahead of their final 12 games.

“We’re not prepared to talk about that right now,” Avila said from the team hotel in Minneapolis, where the Tigers were preparing Thursday to play a tough day-night doubleheader against the Twins. “Right now, we’re focused on trying to win and get into the playoffs. That’s Brad’s focus, that’s my focus.

“He hasn’t brought up anything to me,” Avila said, referring to either a dismissal or contract renewal, “nor have I brought it up with him. The only issue has been: How do we win today?

“Yesterday, we were on the phone with Scott Bream (vice president, player personnel) talking about advance scouting reports on the Braves, because we haven’t played Atlanta all year. We talked possible teams we might face in the playoffs.

“We spend all our time on issues related to winning these games.”

The Tigers track in sophisticated detail their audience and fan base and understand Ausmus has critics as fierce as any who strafed former manager Jim Leyland during his eight seasons in Detroit.

And while not brushing aside those who would prefer a new man at the Tigers’ helm, they believe Ausmus’ detractors are a high-decibel camp fueled heavily by sports-talk radio ire and social media rants that, in any big-league town, tend to torch any manager when a team fails to win. And win big.

Baseball more than any sport breeds armchair expertise. And while fans can often be right for the simple reason all managers including Ausmus mess up on occasion, it is the totality of 24-hour job demands, including game oversight, big-league clubs consider when grading skippers.

Discussions with those who have studied Ausmus, including past Tigers players who asked not to be identified, have made the following points, pro and con, about a man who was hired in November, 2013, and who had not managed a single professional game:

The Tigers were wrong to have placed a rookie at the tiller of a veteran team in 2014. The Tigers were overwhelmed by Ausmus during interviews with Dombrowski, Avila, Bream, and Scott Reid, who directed the team’s professional scouting. They believed Ausmus, who had only managed Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, could meld 21st-century ways and his 18 years of big-league experience as a catcher with a seasoned team and the Tigers would prosper.

It was not a smooth transition. The Tigers won their division but were swept in a first-round playoff series against the Orioles in which the bullpen blew up and Ausmus remained wedded to relief pitchers and to their roles. The Tigers’ best reliever, Al Alburquerque, pitched not once in that series, a bruising testament to the rigid ways a skipper then was practicing. Another fan-infuriating moment came in Game 2 when Anibal Sanchez, who was being watched carefully following a late-summer injury, was pulled after two innings and 30 pitches. Joba Chamberlain and Joaquin Soria disintegrated and the Tigers lost, 7-6.

But the combination of bad events, even if Sanchez’s health was an honorable motive, scarred Ausmus in the eyes of fans and perhaps his bosses.

The Tigers believe Ausmus has grown into an enormously complex job. Overseeing spring training, communicating with players, commanding a coaching staff and their duties, working with the training staff on fine-line decisions relative to a player’s health, patching a pitching staff and lineup as injury-slammed as the Tigers have been in 2016, handling media – the job is a man-eater. Even a skipper as tough as Leyland had decided in 2013 that not only the travel, but the constant vitriol from a shrill segment of fans and media, had been quite enough.

The Tigers know first-hand that axing Ausmus would mean they had trained a well-regarded young manager for his next job. The Tigers, in fact, were contacted late last summer by another club wondering if Ausmus was sticking or would be free to interview for their impending opening. The Tigers know, with certainty, Ausmus would be in line for multiple job offers if he were cut loose this autumn.

But while probabilities remain high Ausmus will return, there is no assurance from the Tigers front office. None. Not yet.

Not until a 2016 baseball season in Detroit has slipped into the archives and a manager has learned of his final grades and fate.