ATLANTA -- The setup came during a question about Tigers reliever Bruce Rondón, and whether his strong finish in a variety of roles might lead to a set role for him next season. Brad Ausmus didn't miss the punchline.
"You might want to ask whoever's managing next year," Ausmus quipped before Detroit's postseason hopes ended in a 1-0 loss to the Braves on Sunday.
It wasn't the first time this weekend that Ausmus joked about his job speculation. When the Tigers opened this series Friday, he was asked about the challenges an interim manager -- such as Braves manager Brian Snitker -- can face compared with a manager who has contractual security.
"I couldn't answer that. I've never been one," Ausmus said before pausing, "although I've been kind of an interim manager for like two years."
Both were subtle plays at the job speculation he has faced since last summer. Last year, it was about whether the Tigers' last-place finish would prompt the team to part ways before the final guaranteed year of his deal. Earlier this season, it was about a potential midseason change following Detroit's slow start.
Now, it's about the contract option the club holds on him for next season under the deal he signed when Detroit hired him three years ago.
General manager Al Avila has said it won't be addressed until the season ends, and he has stuck to that. Once the Tigers' season ended Sunday, nothing changed. It's expected to be addressed in the coming week when they meet to discuss the season.
Until then, Ausmus had no answers.
"You can ask me about my job all you want," he said after the game. "It's going to be between me and Al. If Al thinks he would rather have someone else, I would respect his decision. If Al would like me to do it, I would love to do it. But to speculate over it is a waste of time. It's not even something that I'm worried about."
With the Tigers in the thick of a postseason chase all summer, they've done a surprisingly good job of avoiding it becoming a distraction, in part because of the good words Avila said about Ausmus' performance back in July.
"I think he's done a good job this year," Avila said at the time. "I think he's managed our bullpen tremendously this year. I mean, you can go back and criticize maybe one or two games and question something, but there's always a reason.
"If you look at the trouble we've had with our starting pitching and the lack of going deep into the games at different points of this year, and how he has kept our bullpen fresh for the most part, that to me tells me this guy knows what he's doing with his pitching. Because right now, if you look at the innings pitched, it's pretty good, and he's managed that bullpen tremendously as far as making sure that guys are ready to pitch and they're not overtaxed. So that to me, right now, is one of the biggest improvements I've seen in him in his overall performance."
The Tigers went 16-10 in July to vault back into the thick of the playoff chase. They went 29-27 since the beginning of August amidst injuries to Jordan Zimmermann, Cameron Maybin and Nick Castellanos. When Ausmus talked to the team after the game, he mentioned pride in that.
"People thought we were dead in the water in the middle of the season," he said. "And other than the teams going to the playoffs, we were the last team standing. We took it to the last day of the season."
If Ausmus returns, he'll take over a squad that could be relatively unchanged, though hopefully healthier. The Tigers hold contract options on Maybin and closer Francisco Rodríguez, while backup catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia is eligible for free agency.
The rotation, meanwhile, could stack up with Justin Verlander, Zimmermann and youngsters Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd -- the latter three with a year of experience of being in a playoff race.
"I still think it's a team that's got a chance to win, and it's got some good young pitching now," Ausmus said. "It's got a bona fide ace at the top and it's got some good young pitching that will theoretically just grow and get better."
Asked about Ausmus' future and if he wanted him back, Ian Kinsler said that's not a question for him, but Avila.
"From my point of view, if he's our manager, then that's who our manager is," Kinsler said. "There's no sense in second-guessing it or thinking if someone else could be better. The grass isn't always greener.
"We've got the guy that has been here for three years, obviously was new to the job three years ago, was gaining experience, is somebody that knows the team and knows the players. It's not my position to second-guess that. If he's our manager, then that's who's going to lead this team."