Spring brings first chance for Ausmus to set tone
New manager eager to familiarize himself with Tigers roster in Lakeland, Fla.
DETROIT -- Brad Ausmus has had three months of offseason to answer questions about becoming a manager, developing a style and establishing a presence in a veteran clubhouse. He has traveled far and wide to introduce himself to players. Now, finally, he can go to work on the field.
When Ausmus lands in Florida this week and makes the trek to Lakeland, he'll file into the same office that Sparky Anderson, Jim Leyland, Buddy Bell, Alan Trammell and Phil Garner once occupied. Most likely, the giant portrait of Ty Cobb that Leyland once tore with a throw of his cleats will still be there, looking back at the new occupant.
In some ways, that should be fitting. More than any other Spring Training facility, Tigertown has history. Now comes Ausmus' chance to make his own.
It'll be his first time as a manager at any level, and his first run might be his best chance to win. Rarely has a first-time manager inherited such a veteran team primed for a championship run. The Tigers' next try starts here.
"It will be much different," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said at TigerFest, "but he's a good baseball man. He doesn't have the managerial experience that Jim has, but he's been on the field for a long time and involved in decision-making. He's handled pitching staffs and worked in front offices. He's been a field general when he's been a catcher.
"There'll be some differences, there'll be some changes, but I think we're excited and I think he has a chance to lead us on to be a divisional champion and be in a position to play for a world championship, when the time comes along."
Ausmus arrives without managerial experience, but he won't come in unprepared. He spent much of the winter trying to get to know players, meeting with several veteran leaders in person and speaking with others over the phone. By the time he left Detroit following TigerFest, he had talked with most of the roster.
He'll address the Tigers as a team for the first time in Lakeland. More important, he'll watch and learn.
"I still have to learn what these players are capable of doing," Ausmus said. "I know what some of them can do, but until you lay eyes on a guy playing -- like, I've never seen Nick Castellanos play. Until I watch him play, watch him move at third, watch him swing the bat, I'm a little bit behind the eight ball. But I think that's mitigated a little bit by having Gene Lamont and Jeff Jones. They know the personnel. They know guys on the roster that haven't pitched in the big leagues that'll be in camp."
Lamont, the bench coach, and Jones, the pitching coach, are the two holdovers from Leyland's staff. Lamont was not only Leyland's closest confidant, he was the primary planner for Spring Training. While Leyland set his priorities, Lamont set the schedule to make sure everything ran smoothly. Jones did much of the planning work for the pitchers, often without the credit he deserved.
They'll set the schedules for the new skipper. Ausmus will set the tone. With several offseason moves, it'll be a different team than the one Leyland took to the American League Championship Series last year, with a different style of offense from the power-centered lineup of recent years. Ausmus, too, will have a chance to make his imprints early, from a new-look batting order to a more versatile offense to a retooled bullpen. He has talked about playing time being dictated by performance, and a left-field platoon likely will be his first decision in that regard.
More than anything, though, the big thing for Ausmus to establish is himself.
Pitchers and catchers report
Full squad reports
First Spring Training game
Tigers at Braves, Feb. 26, 1:05 p.m. ET
Tigers vs. Royals, March 31, 1:08 p.m. ET
Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. What will Ausmus' imprint be on this team?
OK, so Spring Training isn't much of a sample on what style a manager is going to use. Wins and losses are relatively meaningless, and bullpen usage is more about getting guys ready than putting up zeros. Nonetheless, it's a chance for a manager to set a tone and define a style. Leyland did that even in his last season managing. Ausmus will try to do that in his first.
2. Will Justin Verlander be ready for season's start?
Unless Verlander has a setback in his recovery from core muscle surgery, the Tigers say, he should be ready when the regular season begins. Part of the reason for Verlander's success the past few years, however, has been that he pushed himself in Spring Training to be game-ready sooner than in past seasons. He's going to have to strike a balance that gets him ready without risking reinjury. The Tigers, meanwhile, are going to need a contingency plan out of a shallow pool of insurance starters.
3. How will the top of the order look?
Austin Jackson has led off for Detroit ever since he broke into the league four years ago, and he actually fared better there in 2013 than was credited, finishing sixth in on-base percentage out of 13 Major Leaguers with at least 500 plate appearances at leadoff. Still, he ended the postseason batting lower in the order after struggling mightily in October. New second baseman Ian Kinsler, meanwhile, arrives with a long history atop the Rangers' batting order. Ausmus hasn't committed to an order yet, making this as close as the Tigers have to a positional battle.
93-69, 1st in the AL Central
Potential batting order
1. CF Austin Jackson:
.272 BA, .337 OBP, .417 SLG, 12 HR, 49 RBI in 2013
2. 2B Ian Kinsler:
.277 BA, .344 OBP, .413 SLG, 13 HR, 72 RBI in 2013
3. 1B Miguel Cabrera:
.348 BA, .442 OBP, .636 SLG, 44 HR, 137 RBI in 2013
4. DH Victor Martinez:
.301 BA, .355 OBP, .430 SLG, 14 HR, 83 RBI in 2013
5. RF Torii Hunter:
.304 BA, .334 OBP, .465 SLG, 17 HR, 84 RBI in 2013
6. LF Andy Dirks:
.256 BA, .323 OBP, .363 SLG, 9 HR, 37 RBI in 2013
7. 3B Nick Castellanos:
.278 BA, .278 OBP, .278 SLG, 0 HR, 0 RBI in 2013
8. C Alex Avila:
.227 BA, .317 OBP, .376 SLG, 11 HR, 47 RBI in 2013
9. SS Jose Iglesias:
.303 BA, .349 OBP, .386 SLG, 3 HR, 29 RBI in 2013
1. Max Scherzer, 21-3, 2.90 ERA in 2013
2. Justin Verlander, 13-12, 3.46 ERA in 2013
3. Anibal Sanchez, 14-8, 2.57 ERA in 2013
4. Rick Porcello, 13-8, 4.32 ERA in 2013
5. Drew Smyly, 6-0, 2.37 ERA in 2013
Closer: Joe Nathan, 43/46 saves, 1.39 ERA in 2013
RH setup man: Bruce Rondon, 3.45 ERA in 2013
LH setup man: Ian Krol, 3.95 ERA in 2013
The new guys
RHP Joba Chamberlain: The Tigers signed the former Yankees phenom as a supporting reliever, also buying into the potential for a rebound year out of him. Six seasons have passed since Chamberlain dominated big league hitters as a pinstriped rookie, yet he's still just 28 years old with good velocity and newfound health. If he's good, especially if his biting slider returns, the Tigers' bullpen looks a lot deeper.
OF Rajai Davis: The former Blue Jay stole more bases last season (45) than the entire Tigers team (35), despite just 360 plate appearances. He also has the longest active streak of 25-steal seasons at six, and he joins a team that hasn't had a player swipe 25 bases since Jackson's rookie season in 2010. He's slated to platoon with Dirks in left field, but his two-year, $10 million contract suggests he isn't going to stay put at first base very often.
2B Kinsler: The Tigers sent Prince Fielder to Texas for Kinsler in baseball's most significant swap of the offseason. The players traded were big names, but the deal represented a change in philosophy for Detroit that was just as important. Kinsler was a presence at the top of the order and in the infield for the Rangers. With four years left on his contract, the 31-year-old is expected to take on a similar role in Detroit.
LHP Krol: Acquired from Washington in the Doug Fister trade, Krol is a high-energy, strong-velocity pitcher in the Phil Coke mold. He'll have a chance to claim a share of the lefty setup role that Coke has owned for the better part of four seasons. To do so, however, Krol will have to build upon the half-season he spent in the Nationals' bullpen, a stint that featured two solid months before some late-season struggles.
IF Steve Lombardozzi: Also part of the Fister trade, Lombardozzi is a switch-hitting version of superutility man Don Kelly, but with more time in the middle infield. He and Kelly give the Tigers a versatile tandem off the bench that Detroit hasn't had since Kelly paired with Ryan Raburn a couple of years ago.
RHP Nathan: The Tigers are painfully familiar with Nathan, having watched him dash their postseason dreams for years with Minnesota. Now, they're counting on the 39-year-old to stabilize a bullpen deep in young talent but shallow on consistent results. With a two-year, $20 million contract, he has a closer's role shored up in Detroit for the foreseeable future while Rondon develops in setup.
Prospects to watch
3B Castellanos: Remember last spring, when Castellanos tore up the Grapefruit League for the first couple weeks while Cabrera and others were away at the World Baseball Classic? Now the Tigers' top prospect returns to Spring Training with a starting job to win at third base. Barring a catastrophic camp or injury, he's expected to man the hot corner in Detroit on Opening Day, bringing his sweet right-handed swing to the big leagues at age 22. He's the first Tigers rookie to enter camp in line for an everyday positional role since Jackson in 2010.
tigers top prospects
LHP Casey Crosby: The Tigers let it be known they'll let the former rotation prospect compete for a spot in their bullpen this spring after two years of mixed results starting with Triple-A Toledo. His arm is good enough to win a job as a power southpaw. The key will be consistency, something that has tested other Tigers pitching prospects in past Spring Trainings.
RHP Justin Miller: The Tigers have made no secret that Miller could provide a spring surprise. Officials love the 26-year-old's arm after a lost 2012 season and a miserable 2013 campaign recovering from elbow surgery. A strong camp might not win him a spot in the Opening Day bullpen, but it could put him in line for an early-season call.
LHP Robbie Ray: Fair or otherwise, the 22-year-old will have a spotlight on him as a key piece of the much-debated Fister trade with Washington. His ranking among Minor League prospects, even Tigers prospects, has varied widely from one publication to another. Though Tigers officials don't see him ready for the big leagues yet, they don't believe he's far off.
On the rebound
RHP Verlander: For the first time in his career, Verlander has a significant injury to rehab, significant enough that a setback could cost him starts at the onset of the season. The timetable of recovery from his core muscle surgery suggests he should be ready, as long as he doesn't push himself too quickly, but Verlander has tended to push himself in camp the past few years.
LHP Coke: Between injuries and ineffectiveness, Coke had a 2013 season both he and the Tigers would like to forget, nullifying the momentum from a 2012 postseason that put him in position for save opportunities at the start of last season. With Krol on board, Coke will have competition as he tries to regain his effectiveness in lefty-lefty situations.
LF Dirks: An aching knee hampered Dirks down the stretch last year, leading to offseason surgery, but Dirks said he's now feeling fine. That should put him in line to share playing time with Davis in left field, but Ausmus has cautioned that it won't necessarily be a strict lefty-righty platoon. Dirks used solid spring performances in 2011 and 2012 as momentum for the regular season, but those came after good seasons in winter ball, something he couldn't do this time around.
RHP Joaquin Benoit: Though Benoit ended up performing fairly well in the closer's role for much of 2013 before a shaky postseason, Nathan's arrival all but ensured an exit for Benoit, who eventually landed in San Diego. The Tigers filled his role in the ninth inning, but his quiet stability in the clubhouse is another matter, likely up for Nathan to fill.
1B Fielder: Amazing to think that a year ago, Fielder came to Spring Training with some Tigers touting him as Detroit's next MVP candidate, following in the footsteps of Verlander and Cabrera. Instead, his 2013 season and October struggles made him a scapegoat for an ALCS loss and put him in line for a surprising offseason trade, changing the long-term look of the franchise.
RHP Fister: The Tigers had six starters for five rotation spots, with Verlander and Sanchez under long-term contract. Somebody had to go; few figured on Fister. He turned out to provide the most realistic trade chip of the bunch, and no trade in baseball this offseason sparked as much scrutiny as his swap to Washington for Krol, Lombardozzi and Ray.