Brad Ausmus will arrive in Lakeland, Fla., on Sunday to begin his tenure as manager of the Tigers, taking over for legend Jim Leyland. Even Leyland realized there needed to be a new voice, a new way of doing things in Detroit. The Tigers were good but stale.
So, when Leyland retired after so many tremendous years, and after his team’s loss to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, team president Dave Dombrowski decided to go with the up-and-coming Ausmus.
It was only a matter of time before Ausmus, a former Padres, Tigers, Astros, and Dodgers catcher, and a native of Cheshire, Conn., got his shot. His reputation in the game is unparalleled, and he was a valued member of the Padres’ front office, working as a special assistant under general manager Josh Byrnes.
When the Red Sox were interviewing managerial candidates last offseason, at a time when they didn’t know whether they’d be able to pull off a trade with Toronto for John Farrell, they brought in Ausmus and came away quite impressed.
If Farrell hadn’t been pried loose, would Ausmus have been the manager of the Red Sox? At the time, Ausmus declined other interviews, feeling he only wanted to manage the Red Sox. As a New Englander, it felt right. He also owns a home on Cape Cod and vacations there.
“It was a year later and I knew there probably wouldn’t be too many more opportunities for me,” Ausmus said. “A number of teams had called, including the Red Sox, and I was selective in the process only because I had a family to think about. My oldest daughter is a sophomore in high school and I knew there would be some things I was going to miss out on. But I knew I wanted to be a manager and that if I didn’t get back into it soon, it might pass me by.”
The Tigers were also comfortable for Ausmus, who had two playing stints in Detroit.
“Our teams weren’t very good,” he said. “But even then there was this underbelly of this great Tiger fan base who were very excited about the Tigers, and everywhere I go now I feel it again. This is a great organization with great people in it. I’ve been so impressed with everything so far. Now it’s up to me to adapt to the situation as a first-year manager and do the things that will help us win a championship.”
Ausmus inherits a very good team that lost to the Red Sox in six games. The Tigers have made some changes. They dealt underproducing and overpaid Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler, and they traded righthander Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals, elevating lefthander Drew Smyly from the bullpen to the starting rotation.
Miguel Cabrera, the best player in baseball, will move from third to first base. The Tigers added some speed in Rajai Davis, who will platoon in left field with Andy Dirks, and Ausmus hopes the Tigers will get away a bit from their station-to-station offense.
Ausmus said he’s had several conversations with Leyland, who is now a special assistant to Dombrowski and who will be at spring training.
“I spoke to Jim just three days ago and I’ll continue to get his input,” said Ausmus. “He knows our personnel better than anyone, so there were some things I needed to get some information on and background on, and what better resource than Jim?”
While Ausmus understands the notion that he and Leyland are from different worlds, different baseball generations, he added, “I think I’m a little old school, as well. When I started in baseball we didn’t have the sabermetrics like we do now. That evolved over the period of time I was a player and it’s been a part of how we evaluate. But for me it’s a mixture of things, so in that regard I don’t think I’m a lot different than Jim. Certainly, I’ll probably do some things differently, but I can’t say I’m going to be the complete opposite of him, either.”
Ausmus will have Leyland holdover Gene Lamont as his bench coach.
“I’ll rely on Gene a lot,” Ausmus said. “He knows the players and has been around here for a long time. We’ve been in touch a lot regarding how we’re going to run the camp and going over the drills we need to accomplish during the course of the day.”
Ausmus obviously knows pitching and catcher, and he’ll be very conscious regarding catcher Alex Avila’s concussion history.
“We’re taking Alex’s concussions very seriously,” Ausmus said. “Any sign of head trauma, we’re going to be on it and take the cautionary steps. With all the information out there on concussions, it’s not something to be taken lightly, and Alex has had his share of foul balls coming at him, collisions, etc.”
Ausmus caught 1,938 games in his major league career and recalls sustaining only one concussion.
“It was during a home plate collision with Scott Podsednik,” he said. “That was the only one I think I had. I remember getting my bell rung a few times, but I was pretty lucky.”
Ausmus knows he could have entered a much worse situation. He gets to write Cabrera’s name in the lineup every day. He gets to hand the ball to Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander.
Ausmus already has visited most of his players, but he’ll have team meetings soon when he will outline his agenda to the team.
Some players focused on bounceback years
It’ll be a season of interesting comeback attempts.
Grady Sizemore will compete with Jackie Bradley Jr. for the Red Sox’ starting job in center field. Sizemore was once a five-tool stud, but he’s suffered a number of injuries and hasn’t played a full season since 2008. For a four-year period he was one of the more durable players in the game. The Red Sox got a big comeback year from John Lackey last season.
Scott Sizemore was once very good at second and third base. He suffered torn ACLs in 2012 and 2013, but he’s 10 months removed from his last surgery and feels he can compete for the Yankees’ third base job with Kelly Johnson.
Matt Kemp, one of the most devastating righthanded hitters in the game, hopes to return to full health with the Dodgers after two seasons of shoulder and ankle injuries. Kemp is only 29.
The biggest long shot is Mark Mulder, who has been out of baseball since 2008. Mulder was once one of the more dominating lefthanders in the game, but a shoulder injury forced him to retire. This winter he picked up a baseball again, found the restrictions in his shoulder were gone, and has been able to elevate his velocity to about 92. He’ll get a shot with the Angels.
The Diamondbacks are trying to be optimistic about Cody Ross, who suffered a dislocated hip while running to first base Aug. 11. They’re not ruling out Opening Day. Ross will not only have to fight to come back from a tough injury, but he’ll have to compete for a job as Mark Trumbo has taken over in left field and Gold Glove winner Gerardo Parra is in right.
Daniel Bard will try to recover after thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, which he underwent this winter after a couple of years of not knowing where his pitches were going. Once a dominant setup man, Bard’s career has gone as low as it can. The Rangers, who signed him recently after his release by the Cubs, hope the surgery will correct his command issues.
Apropos of nothing
1. How much pressure did the players apply to Alex Rodriguez to withdraw his lawsuit against the union? “I think a lot,” said one prominent AL player. “It didn’t go over too well and Alex heard about it a lot. Nobody ever understood it. He did the right thing by dropping it.” Rodriguez also dropped his suit against MLB. A-Rod is probably thinking, according to someone who knows him well: “He’s going to sit out the year, rest that hip, and come back strong. That’s what he’s thinking. Spending all this time fighting what so many people have told him he may not win bothers him.” We certainly buy that A-Rod could come back strong, but we wonder when he does return, will the Yankees simply eat the remainder of the contract and let him go?
2. We know one thing about Curt Schilling, he’s a fighter. And that’s what he’ll do during his bout with cancer.
3. Eduardo Perez, one of the nicest people in baseball, resigned as hitting coach of the Marlins and will soon return to ESPN as an analyst.
4. The late Ralph Kiner was one of the great story tellers in baseball history. Just a pleasure to listen to. The two best story tellers in the game now? Giants GM Brian Sabean and Dodgers GM Ned Colletti.
5. Maybe not a Hall of Famer, but a good player: Vladimir Guerrero. He hit .318 with 449 home runs, 1,496 RBIs, and a .931 OPS. In his day, Guerrero was a five-tool player. He still wants to play, but at 38 and two years out of the game, it doesn’t appear likely.
6. The Dodgers are in no hurry to settle their crowded outfield situation. Colletti indicated he’ll try to make it work with four — Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, and Yasiel Puig, who, by the way, could wind up being the leadoff hitter. The feeling is Crawford and the recovering Kemp will need their downtime. Crawford has suffered through numerous nagging injuries the past two years, while Kemp has been unable to stay healthy. Colletti doesn’t want to get into the position he was with his pitching early last season, where he lost Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, and Zack Greinke, then was left scrambling.
Updates on nine
1. Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, free agent — Indians bench coach Brad Mills praised the work pitching coach Mickey Callaway did with Jimenez last season. “He was the one coach who really got through to Ubaldo,” Mills said. “Maybe in the past he had butted heads with people, but Mickey turned him around and got the best out of him. Ubaldo pitched great for us. He’s a big loss, but we’ve moved on with some guys we think can do the job.” There’s still the feeling that Jimenez’s price hasn’t dropped enough to warrant a team jumping in hard, especially with the draft compensation attached. The Blue Jays and Yankees could still be possibilities.
2. Stephen Drew, SS, free agent — The Mets remain the best bet. Even though there’s a sentiment he may return to the Red Sox, that has been dampened lately. Agent Scott Boras continues to indicate that he’s speaking to “multiple” teams concerning Drew’s availability. Drew still receives text messages from his Red Sox teammates who hope he returns.
3. A.J. Burnett, RHP, free agent — Burnett seems to be in full free agency mode, definitely testing the waters. There were reports late in the week that the Phillies and Orioles may no longer be in the hunt. The Pirates really want him back and have been surprised that Burnett has been testing the market. The Diamondbacks are in position to add another pitcher. They could make a run at Burnett, though there are indications he prefers the East Coast. The Washington Post recently reported that the Nationals could make a surprise run.
4. Suk-min Yoon, RHP, free agent — We seem to be about a week away from a decision on where the South Korean will land. When Masahiro Tanaka was out there, teams considered him the best free agent pitcher, and now Yoon could be that guy. Concerns about an injury to his elbow have subsided, as medical reports have been studied closely by teams. There’s lots of competition for him. The Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Orioles in the AL East have made bids. The Diamondbacks also remain interested, but at this stage “it could be anybody,” according to a National League general manager.
5. Nelson Cruz, OF, free agent — We reported last week about the Mariners’ interest in the former Rangers slugger, and that has not waned. The number of years is still the sticking point, but the Mariners believe they need another big righthanded bat to complete their team and have been willing to go where no other team has ventured throughout the offseason with Cruz — possibly two years and an option for a third. The Mariners have always had to overbid for free agents because of their location and this is a prime example.
6. Kendrys Morales, 1B/DH, free agent — Morales fits what the Pirates need, a first baseman/middle of the order hitter. There’s mutual interest, but while the Pirates would love him on the right contract, they may also pursue a first baseman via trade. There are a few possible candidates, including the Mets’ Ike Davis, Toronto’s Adam Lind, Texas’s Mitch Moreland, and even Seattle’s Justin Smoak and Boston’s Daniel Nava and Mike Carp.
7. Ryan Madson, RP, free agent — The Red Sox were present for Madson’s workout on Friday in Arizona. They have been interested in Madson for some time and have patiently waited for his rehab to come full circle. Madson hasn’t pitched since 2011 but is a proven closer whom teams are monitoring closely. Former Red Sox Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan are in the same boat. Neither Bailey nor Hanrahan is expected to be ready until June or so, but both could be acquisitions for teams needing end-of-bullpen help.
8. Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Cubs — There’s still a good amount of interest, but the Cubs are holding out hoping they can sign him long term. If things get to the point by the trading deadline where Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer don’t feel it’s possible, they could deal him then. Nothing prevents the Cubs from dealing him during spring training, but that seems unlikely.
9. Brett Wallace, 1B, Astros — Wallace went from being a first-round draft pick (13th overall in 2008 to the Cardinals) to being designated for assignment last week. The Astros want to upgrade their talent base and they’re starting at first base. Wallace could help a team with his lefthanded power off the bench, but a lot of teams simply don’t see him as an everyday guy. Wallace was once traded in a package for Matt Holliday.
From the Bill Chuck files — “Since 2010, CC Sabathia’s quality starts have decreased each season: 26, 22, 19, and 16.” . . . “Also, since 2011, the catchers with the most homers are Matt Wieters (64), J.P. Arencibia (61), Brian McCann (61), Russell Martin (54), and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (53).” . . . And, “Over the last three seasons, no one has given up more homers than Bronson Arroyo (104) and Ervin Santana (91).” . . . Wish Allen Webster (24) a happy birthday on Monday.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.