On Brad Ausmus, Ian Kinsler and expectations
The Astros held off on celebrating the 10th anniversary of their 2005 World Series team until this weekend, with Tigers manager Brad Ausmus in town. The longtime Astros catcher was one of the most popular players on the team, and he’ll be honored on the field with old teammates Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, among others.
“It’ll be nice to see them,” Ausmus said, “but for some reason I think I’ll be more focused on winning the game.”
Nobody’s likely to hold that against him. His spot in Astros history is secure. His role in the Tigers’ future is to be determined. It’s the biggest question left in Detroit’s organizational shuffling.
Dave Dombrowski, who hired Ausmus two years ago, is gone. Al Avila, Dombrowski’s longtime top assistant, is in charge. Avila’s circle assistants, most of whom have been here for years, are now secured. Aside from scouts, Ausmus and his staff are the top figures yet to have their long-term status decided.
It’s not exactly limbo, with Ausmus under contract through next season. Still, a year is nothing for a team if it wants to make a change.
Before the Tigers left Kansas City for Houston Wednesday night, Ausmus went on MLB Network Radio for his regular afternoon spot and told Jim Bowden that he doesn’t hasn’t been told anything about his situation beyond what general manager Al Avila told reporters a week and a half ago. He’s the manager this year, and he’ll be evaluated at season end.
“I’m not worried about it,” Ausmus said Wednesday. “I mean, there’s really nothing I can do about it. I get along very well with Al, so I’m not concerned about that. There’s really nothing for me to worry about.
“What am I going to do? We still prepare every day, do the same things every series and try to win the game.”
They won Wednesday night with a rare late-inning comeback against the Royals, who hadn’t blown an eighth-inning lead since May 2014. It was a parting shot in a ballpark the Tigers owned last year but which has taken on an aura since the Royals run to the World Series last October.
Afterwards, players said the same: It’s not something they can think about as they try to make the most of what’s left of this season. Still, when asked about the uncertainty, Ian Kinsler defended his manager’s performance.
“To me, Brad’s done a great job,” Kinsler said. “He hasn’t been given a lot to work with this year. [Justin] Verlander was hurt out of the gate. We struggled with our bullpen. There are a lot of things that are out of his control. He’s done a great job in my eyes, but that’s the front office’s job.”
When that task arrives, the team will have to evaluate two things: What role does Ausmus play in the Tigers’ present situation, and how does he fit into their future?
Ausmus inherited a three-time division champion and added a fourth last year. Barring a miraculous rally, that run is about to end — Wednesday’s win at Kansas City, followed by another Royals loss to the Angels on Thursday, still left the Tigers 13 games behind the Royals, though 4 ½ games out of the Wild Card. The urgency to win for owner Mike Ilitch, however, remains.
Similarly, Kinsler has gone into September with something at stake every year since his 2009 season in Texas. Like Ausmus, Kinsler hoped they’d heat up in time to convince management to buy, not sell, at last month’s Trade Deadline. Since then, he has been among the most vocal that players need to keep battling through season’s end. If Ausmus ends up being judged at all on the Tigers’ home stretch, Kinsler might be one of his best assets.
At the same time, Kinsler said, managers get more criticism than often deserved when teams fall short.
“Not just him,” Kinsler said. “We obviously didn’t play up to our expectations, so yeah, he’s going to take a lot of grief. That’s just the nature of the job.
“Everyone can play Monday morning quarterback. When a move doesn’t work, they want to blame him. But the reality is, what are his options? But, at the same time, I think he’s done a fabulous job.”
With expectations so high in Detroit, Kinsler said, that criticism grows.
“It’s a tough job to do, especially coming in after Jim Leyland, coming into an organization that won three divisions in a row,” Kinsler said. “Having to manage a team in your first year managing, to win a division is pretty special. But that’s all taken for granted. It’s kind of tough.
“But at the same time, we’ve underachieved this year. I think everyone knows that, and everyone’s disappointed up to this point. Hopefully this organization can get back to what it’s used to.”
The Tigers are in the middle of a road that takes them to the Royals, Astros and Cubs, three young, developing teams that have surprised fans locally and nationally and suddenly risen to playoff contention in the last 12 months. They’ll visit the similarly resurgent Blue Jays later this month. It’s a glimpse of where the Tigers were a few years ago. Ironically, the Tigers now might be closer to that developing stage, even with goals to contend again in 2016.
Ausmus has placed more responsibility on rookie catcher James McCann to formulate game plans and handle a pitching staff with two rookie starters who weren’t in the system a month ago, let alone the Majors. He has played third baseman Nick Castellanos, shortstop Jose Iglesias and center fielder Anthony Gose through growing pains. Now, he’s entrusting save situations to Bruce Rondon, Detroit’s longtime closer of the future.
For the Tigers to win, they’ll have to develop.
“Yes, we’re probably trying to develop more of them than we were previously,” Ausmus said, “but it doesn’t change that we’re still trying to win. Whether I’m here next year or not, I still, today, want to try to make them better, for them. That doesn’t change anything.”
Asked how much he’d like to be judged on results, and how much on development, Ausmus stopped short of an answer.
“That’s their decision,” he said. “I’m not concerning myself with things that are out of my control.”