Last year Brad Ausmus seemed to start off his rookie managerial season trying to transform the Detroit Tigers to a speedy, more flexible, more progressively managed team. But as the season wore on and the limits of what he had to work with became more evident, Ausmus seemed to pull back a little and settle for a more conservative approach. But now that Ausmus is a sophomore manager, it’s time to find his footing. Here are five ways he could do so.
1) Be flexible and creative in his use of the bullpen. Early in his rookie season, Ausmus experimented a little with how he used his relievers in the late innings—not always mimicking the standard idea of set roles for everyone. He used a few relievers, notably Al Albuquerque, in a variety of roles that varied game to game rather than giving everyone a set assignment in a particular inning. But Ausmus was hamstrung by his limited options and as the season wore on reverted to the closer/set-up man/seventh-inning specialist routine that dominates the game today. In 2015, however, given the addition of Bruce Rondon, the iffy track record of Joe Nathan, the arrival of veteran Tom Gorzelanny, the uncertain status of Joakim Soria, and the possible use of Buck Farmer as a reliever who can pitch multiple innings, Ausmus should employ in-game strategy and advanced match-up statistics to react to the unique situations of each game rather than managing by rote. Will he have the savvy and the guts to do this?
2) Get the maximum out of his outfield options. This won’t be easy either. With his strong arm, Yoenis Cespedes should be playing right field, not left. And with his limited range, JD Martinez should not ever venture out of a corner spot. But alas, Rajai Davis is not an adequate center fielder. And it is an open question whether Anthony Gose can hit enough even to start against right-handers, let alone lefties. That leaves the Tiger outfield as a puzzle—and Ausmus has to figure out how to solve it. Could Cespedes play center against lefties? Stay tuned.
3) Shuffle the lineup for maximum effect. Just as he did with the bullpen, Ausmus last season at first toyed with a less-than-set lineup. This year he has more options. With Jose Iglesias, Gose, and Davis all speedsters whose offensive production is uncertain, he has to figure where to use them—leading off or bringing up the rear? Is Ian Kinsler best leading off or in the two slot? Once his All-Star DH is healthy, would Ausmus consider Victor Martinez batting second, where his on-base percentage and low strikeout rate might pay big dividends? Will Ausmus be bold enough to change lineups day to day depending on the opposing starter?
4) Make full use of his bench in the late innings. This is another opportunity Ausmus really didn’t have last season—because he didn’t have the personnel. But this year, he should have at least one base-stealing threat off the bench (Gose or Davis). He also should have good bats in rookies Stephen Moya, Tyler Collins, and Brian McCann—and perhaps a defensive replacement option at third base in Hernan Perez. Ausmus should make full use of his whole roster.
5) Put his stamp on the team. Where Ausmus seemed tentative last season to be too assertive with his veteran club, now, with a year under his belt, it’s time for Ausmus to exercise his baseball brain and apply his own philosophy. Torii Hunter is gone. So is Max Scherzer. So are Phil Coke and Don Kelly, This is no longer Jim Leyland’s team. It’s his. Ausmus is smart and shouldn’t be afraid to use all the tools at his disposal, including modern analytics. The Tigers are changing—growing older at many positions, younger at others. With the Royals and Indians and the resurgent White Sox, they will be severely challenged in the Central. They need an innovative, forward-thinking manager to firmly take the reins—and try a new approach.