There were an incalculable number of times over the years that the subject of Brad Ausmus as a manger came up amongst friends and fans while sitting at the old Astrodome or Arthur Andersen Memorial Stadium, better known today as Minute Maid Park. The consensus was he would be an excellent dugout commander, from both the standpoint of clubhouse management and in-game strategist.
Well, here's his chance. Ausmus' first big league job as a manager will come with the Detroit Tigers, who just happen to be among the favorites to win the whole enchilada in 2014. The Tigers are listed in the 5/1 to 6/1 range on the MLB futures odds to win their first World Series in 30 years, and going off around 4/1 to take home their third AL flag since 2006.
Detroit is also going to be prohibitive favorites to win a fourth consecutive AL Central title. Then again, the Tigers were in that role each of the last two seasons, and never could pull away from the division as expected. In 2012, Detroit's margin was just three games ahead of the Chicago White Sox, and last year the Tigers managed to claim the AL Central by a mere game over the Cleveland Indians.
Though they have trimmed their payroll a tad, the Tigers are still projected to come in over $160 million on Opening Day, giving them the third-highest salary total in the American League. That will have their fans, and the bettors who back them, expecting a much easier path to the playoffs than they've taken the past two years.
Will Verlander Be Ready For Opening Day?
Ausmus' knowledge of the pitching aspect of the game during an 18-year career as a catcher was pretty obvious from his early days. Managers that he played under, including Phil Garner with both the Tigers and Astros, considered Ausmus an extension of themselves when he was on the field, and with the pitching staff he has in Detroit, he might be tempted to don the tools of ignorance and catch once again.
Ausmus won't have to do that with Alex Avila as his catcher now, and the rookie manager has said he intends to rely on Avila to get him up to speed on the staff as well as in-game management once the season begins.
A big question about the rotation right now is the health of Justin Verlander. The former MVP and Cy Young winner had some minor muscle surgery in his right arm a month ago, and while he's progressing well in rehab, there is some doubt whether he will be available when the bell sounds for Detroit's season opener March 31 vs. the Royals.
There are plenty of options behind Verlander to make that start should he not be able to go. Max Scherzer, the 2013 AL Cy Young recipient, and Anibal Sanchez essentially give the Tigers a second and third ace on the staff, and the rotation figures to be rounded out by Drew Smyly and Rock Porcello. Jose Alvarez and Kyle Lobstein wait in the wings until needed.
A key addition to the pitching staff this winter was signing free agent closer Joe Nathan. The primary middle relief and setup arms are Phil Coke, Al Albuquerque, Bruce Rondon and Joba Chamberlain.
Miggy Shifts To 1B In Infield Shuffle
Detroit's Opening Day starting infield last April consisted of Prince Fielder at first, Omar Infante at second, Jhonny Peralta and short and Miguel Cabrera at third. Only Cabrera remains of that quartet, and he's moving across the diamond to first.
Ian Kinsler comes over from Texas in the Fielder deal to man 2B, and should slide into the second hole of the batting order in front of Cabrera. Shortstop is being turned over to 23-year-old Cuban Jose Iglesias after being dealt from the Red Sox last July. Third base remains a question mark presently, with former 1st-round pick Nick Castellanos expected to be the odds-on favorite to claim the job this spring.
Austin Jackson will be back in center and batting leadoff, with veteran Torii Hunter in right. Left field is another spring battle to watch, with free agent acquisition Rajai Davis trying to beat out Don Kelly and Andy Dirks for the job.
Victor Martinez should move up to the cleanup spot in the order behind Cabrera now that Fielder is gone, and the switch-hitting DH is a good bet to add to his power numbers from 2013.
It all adds up to a team that has as good a shot as any other to win 95 games. Nathan should add some stability to a bullpen that was anything but stable in 2013, the starting rotation is 3-aces deep, and Miggy Cabrera's bat will always keep the Tigers in the game. Thirty years is a long time between World Series titles, and Detroit fans may just see that drought broken in 2014.