Is Ausmus too young, or Tigers too old?

Alan TruexA fire in a parking lot near Comerica Stadium destroyed seven unoccupied cars and was  an apt metaphor for the Detroit Tigers’ season: going up in flames.  The Tigers have fallen under .500, so of course the manager is suspected of being part of the problem.

When the Tigers hired Brad Ausmus prior to the 2014 season, there were suspicions he wasn’t ready, at 45, for that job.  He had never managed other than a brief fling with the Israeli national team.  Was he ready to replace the much admired Jim Leyland?

Under Leyland the Tigers won two American League pennants and most years advanced deep into the playoffs.  Under Ausmus they’ve won a division title but have not won a playoff game, and now they are rapidly fading from the race.

Jamie Samuelson, who co-hosts a talk show on Detroit’s WXYT-FM, wrote this for the Detroit Free Press: “If I sit here and think what Ausmus’ strengths are as a manager, I can’t come up with much.  This team doesn’t play aggressively.  They make baserunning mistakes and fielding miscues.  They play dispassionately at times.”

Samuelson points out that Ausmus “is in a tough spot” with “an injured superstar (Miguel Cabrera out for another month with a strained calf) and a struggling pitching staff.”

But nonetheless, he says, the manager “is firmly on the hot seat.” 

Ausmus is criticized for staying too long with his starting pitchers and for being too quick to pull the big bats from the lineup.  In one game this season he subbed for Cabrera and Victor Martinez, only to have those positions in the order come back up again in crucial spots.

Some of his moves have backfired, but Ausmus usually has sound reasoning.  Cabrera and the 36-year-old Martinez are key players who are at high risk for injury.  They can benefit from rest.

And if Ausmus is too slow to signal for relief, you have to keep in mind he has one of the league’s worst bullpens.  Closer Joakim Soria gives up a home run every four innings, which means almost no lead is truly safe when he takes the ball.

But the main problem is a starting rotation that offers nothing with the exception of All-Star David Price, who’s expected to be traded (along with Yoenis Cespedes) if the Tigers haven’t improved their position by the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

Anibal Sanchez is serving up more than one home run per start; Justin Verlander at 32 has lost his fastball; Alfred Simon and Shane Greene both have ERA’s of 11+ for their past five starts.

Sunday’s loss was typical.  Verlander was knocked out in a six-run fourth inning.  The Tigers have not won any of his six starts this season.  His ERA has grown to 6.62.

A manager can have major impact on the success of his bullpen or his bench players.  But there’s not much he can do if the starting pitchers keep digging holes. 

Which is not to say Ausmus is blameless.  I’m among those who doubted he was a smart hire.  I covered him for the Houston Chronicle when he was a player, and he did not strike me as a team leader, even though he’s highly intelligent with an Ivy League education.

Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were the Astros’ leaders – willing to reprimand teammates for not hustling or thinking.  Ausmus was quiet, restrained.  I wondered if he would be tough enough as a manager when effort lagged.  Surely he would benefit from some seasoning in the minors or time as a coach with a big-league team, which he has not had.

His strength as a manager, which Samuelson apparently hasn’t noticed, is that he’s a willing communicator.  In the days following his hiring, he flew long distances to meet with his players at their homes.  He understands that the modern-day manager doesn’t just give orders.  He consults, he facilitates, he welcomes advice, he keeps his composure.  Ausmus has done all that.

But with the team underachieving, his lack of experience leads to doubts, even though it’s doubtful any manager could make a contender out of this year’s Tigers.

Time has passed them by.  They went too long with a future-is-now strategy, buying up expensive veterans and giving up prospects.  The Sporting News calls their farm system “almost a barren wasteland.”

Owner Mike Ilitch, 85, has spent lavishly.  The player payroll of $174 million ranks fourth in the majors.  He’s gotten some returns.  The Tigers have done everything but win a World Series.  In the past six years: five postseason appearances, four division titles, the two pennants, three Most Valuable Player awards and two Cy Youngs.

There’s still impressive talent on the roster.  Detroit leads the majors in batting average and on-base percentage.  And Ausmus deserves some credit for pressing the pedal on the previously stagnant running game.

“There’s too much talent in this clubhouse for this team not to play better,” Verlander said.  “Everyone needs to look in the mirror, and that starts with me.”

The Tigers rank 27th in pitching effectiveness, and there’s not much Ausmus can do about that, even if he hasn’t managed the staff as well as he might.

Dave Dombrowski, who won a World Series with the Marlins, has been general manager of the Tigers since 2001.  He’s in the final year of his contract.  If the Tigers’ season does go up in flames, he should be on the hot seat as well.

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