No managerial opening this offseason was more coveted than the one in Detroit. Just the same, no managerial opening carries more pressure and expectations.
After all, the Tigers have one of the best and most talented cores around, are coming off three-straight late-October runs and needed to replace longtime skipper Jim Leyland, one of the top bench men of this generation.
If that sounds like a risky decision by Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski and his front office cohort, it is. But here's the thing: it's also potentially a very smart one.
Dombrowski is one of baseball's best, most-proven and well-respected minds. Given that, along with what is at stake for his win-now club by making this move, he simply wouldn't have made this choice without being sold that it was the right one.
Ausmus may not have the experience, but he is bright, savvy and knows the game. The Dartmouth-educated 44-year-old spent 18 years in the majors as a catcher with four different clubs, including three seasons across two stints with the Tigers.
Since retiring in 2010, Ausmus has been a special assistant with the San Diego Padres, so he's remained heavily involved and invested in baseball while also learning about the sport from a decision-maker's standpoint.
As Richard Justice of MLB.com wrote:
In this era of advanced analytics, front offices can provide managers with data to assist with lineups, pitching matchups and defensive alignments. Ausmus will be a sponge for this kind of thing because he has a curious mind. But the thing no front office can help him with is his relationship with players.
Fans focus on a manager's in-game strategy, but by far the largest challenge is to get players to play hard every single day and to believe that each decision the manager makes is in the best interest of the team.
Ausmus will have no agenda other than winning that game. He will have an open-door policy. He will make sure his players know him, his motives, etc.
That said, there will be a transition period for Ausmus, especially since he'll have to learn the ins and outs of the day-to-day responsibilities of managing. He will also have to learn how to make in-game decisions as well as how to deal with the media. Plus, Ausmus will have to battle expectations that come with managing a team that has championship hopes.
The Tigers have been one of the best teams in the sport for several years now, thanks in part to Leyland, who went 700-597 and won two American League pennants during his eight years in Detroit.Also, the team's best players, like Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Prince Fielder, are all in the middle of their primes. Sp there's no time for Ausmus to go through much of an adjustment or breaking-in period—he needs to be ready to roll on Opening Day 2014.
But the first-time manager will be able to rely on a Tigers coaching staff full of veterans, including bench coach Gene Lamont and pitching coach Jeff Jones, who are more than capable of helping Ausmus make the transition.
Plus, teams have found some success recently in choosing managers who didn't have much, if any, experience. While some, like Walt Weiss with the Rockies and Mike Redmond with the Marlins, haven't yet made their mark, Robin Ventura made an impact with the White Sox by keeping them in the playoff chase until the final weeks of 2012, his first year as manager.
And then there's Mike Matheny. Managerial comparisons might not hold much weight, but among current skippers, he may be the most similar to Ausmus given that both men had lengthy, overlapping careers as big league backstops who excelled on defense. Also, just like Ausmus, Matheny replaced a legendary manager who was one of the game's greats over the past quarter-century and who retired right after a huge amount of recent success.
In 2012, Matheny replaced Tony LaRussa, whose 2,728 wins ranks third all-time and who had just led the Cardinals to a second World Series championship in six seasons. While Matheny hasn't yet brought another title to St. Louis, he has made the playoffs in each of his first two years and reached the World Series this season.
Besides, the other candidates the Tigers had been linked to—Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, Padres bench coach Rick Renteria and Dodgers third-base coach Tim Wallach—don't exactly have loads of experience managing in the majors either. In fact, of the four who interviewed for the job, only McClendon had spent time as a big-league manager, and in his five years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he never won more than 75 games.
So while Dombrowski could have gone after and hired a more seasoned option—and there are plenty out there, from Dusty Baker to Manny Acta to Eric Wedge—he clearly saw the allure of bringing in Ausmus, who could turn out to be a newbie-but-goodie.
As Dombrowski said at the press conference to introduce Ausmus, per Beck:
Anyone I talked to or our people talked to, any time Brad's name came up, they were effusive with praise. It kept coming back that this guy was born to manage many years ago. … Extremely intelligent and yet could communicate with everyone. Frankly, when we interviewed, we were taken aback at how impressive he was.
Now, it's on Ausmus to show how impressive he can be.