Ausmus will be tested in his first season at the helm of the Tigers

Brad Ausmus works with catcher Victor Martinez during spring training.

Brad Ausmus works with catcher Victor Martinez during spring training.

As question marks and minor concerns start to pile up for the 2014 Detroit Tigers, it’s clear that their rookie manager, Brad Ausmus, has his work cut out for him. Though the Tigers are solid at most positions and boast a great starting rotation, the club has been reshaped by off-season trades and no longer looks like a lock to win its division — not with Kansas City and Cleveland set to make more noise this year.

The Royals’ young players are blossoming, and they could be further strengthened by young pitching phenom Yordano Ventura. The Indians, who won only one fewer game than Detroit last season, will have their own phenom , Danny Salazar, in the rotation all season.

Meanwhile, in the first few weeks of spring training, the Tigers have had to contend with the unsettling news that platoon left fielder Andy Dirks will undergo back surgery and miss at least the first couple months of the season. Jose Iglesias was ready to try playing with special adapted footwear to deal with chronic shin splits, which have once again sidelined him. Although both Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander look healthy, they both are coming off “core surgery” — and they are indeed the core of the team. The new rule against collisions at home plate may help Alex Avila, who was battered and worn down at the end of last season — but Detroit can’t reasonably expect his backup, who is probably going to be Bryan Holaday, to be nearly as productive as Brayan Pena was last year.

The more you look at this year’s squad, the more questions arise. Chief among them are the batting splits in Ian Kinsler’s career record: Over the last three seasons, he’s hit .294/.380/.492 in the Rangers’ home park, but fifty or more points lower on the road (and a putrid .167/.274/.241 at Comerica!). While he’s a fine slugger against southpaws (.306/.389/.505 over that same period), he’s only a .246/.324/.415 hitter against righties. The third cause for concern is that his skills on both defense and offense have been declining in recent years: homers dropping from thirty-two in 2011 to thirteen in 2013, OPS from .832 to .757.

With Prince Fielder’s big bat gone from the lineup, the Tigers are counting on Kinsler to be take up some of the slack. Add in the loss of Dirks, and the lineup looks even less potent from the left side. There are only Alex Avila and switch-hitter Victor Martinez to hit from the port side if Rajai Davis has to play left field full time — a scary prospect since he’s proven to be unable to hit right-handed pitchers throughout his career (.232/.269/.329 over the last three seasons). If the Tigers turn to Ezequiel Carrera, Trevor Crowe, Don Kelly, or Steve Lombardozzi to fill the Dirks hole in the outfield — well, they’ve all amply proven they’re career fringe players.

Torii Hunter also hits lefties better than righties — so where’s the punch in this lineup against good right-handed pitchers? The Indians have four right-handed starters. Fortunately, the Royals may have three lefties in their rotation, but one of them is Bruce Chen, who always gives right-handed batters fits, especially Detroit’s.

Based on last year’s steep defensive decline, Hunter’s skills may be eroding rapidly. That’s another concern, and by the evidence so far in spring training, Nick Castellanos is going to take some time to relearn third base even at the mediocre level he’s capable of achieving. Kinsler and Cabrera aren’t defensive stars, either — so there are soft spots on defense as well as offense.

That doesn’t even get us to the multitude of question marks known as the Detroit bullpen.

Yet, despite all this, it appears Ausmus and his charges are working hard and having the time of their lives. I think that’s a good sign. The value of camaraderie is immeasurable. Whether it’s Hunter smooching, or not really smooching, an alligator, or Holaday taking swimsuit modeling lessons from Kate Upton, or a makeshift basketball tournament conducted in the clubhouse, it’s clear that the club is having fun this spring with their new manager — but also that the daily morning meetings he’s instituted are serious business.

Ausmus is no doubt aware that the Tigers were fond of the manager he’s replacing. To a man, they described Jim Leyland’s prankish sense of humor as “old school” and related to him as a genial grandpa. Ausmus is much closer to their age and not that far removed from being in their cleats. He’s clearly capable of operating on their wavelength and speaking their language, and he doesn’t appear that hung up on flexing his authority.

Ausmus is smart enough to know that, in today’s clubhouses, authority is earned through actions and behaviors that engender mutual respect. He doesn’t have any illusions that millionaire players need to be treated like chattel nor do they want to be coddled. Not this group anyway — it appears every man on the Detroit roster takes his job seriously and approaches his work with dedication. The Tigers have no oversized egos, are all team players, and have a mix of veterans and youngsters willing to work together.

Ausmus will need the chemistry to be smooth throughout the season, because he might have to make some adjustments as he goes — especially in the bullpen. He’s shown some flexibility so far, leaving the lineup as an open question and perhaps even adaptable day-to-day. He’ll consider advanced statistical metrics in determining batter-pitcher matchups and decision-making overall, and he’ll have fun and keep his players happy.

Have no illusions: the new Tigers’ skipper has some challenges ahead. But so far it seems like he’s exactly the breath of fresh air and a more modern approach to managing that this club will need in what might be a very trying 2014 campaign.