LAKELAND, Fla. — Brad Ausmus stood near the cage during batting practice, playing catch with a Detroit coach while chatting amiably with former Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
Their friendly interplay was emblematic of this unusual spring training for the defending AL Central champions, who are now managed by Ausmus after Leyland stepped down during the off-season. Leyland remains part of the Detroit organization, but this is very much Ausmus’ team now, and with Opening Day about a month away, the new leader in the Tigers’ dugout is striking a delicate balance between new ideas and steady continuity.
“He’s confident. I think he knows he’s going to do things a little differently, but he’s not worried about that,” said bench coach Gene Lamont, a holdover from Leyland’s staff. “But I also think he’s not just going to change just to change.”
There are plenty of obvious contrasts between the 44-year-old Ausmus and his predecessor. Leyland has been involved in baseball for over a half-century. Ausmus hasn’t even been alive that long – and he’s only four years removed from his final season as a player.
Ausmus meets with reporters in the same office Leyland did, but he’s less likely to veer off topic, answering questions with a polished demeanor.
Leyland was always praised for his ability to relate to his players, even when many of them were less than half his age. Ausmus might have an even easier time – he was recently a peer to some of the athletes he’ll manage.
“Brad is a guy who’s got 18 years in the big leagues and played the game,” outfielder Torii Hunter said. “He understands chemistry. He understands how guys think now.”
One addition Ausmus made to the team’s daily routine is a morning meeting in the clubhouse during spring training.
“It can be anything,” Ausmus said. “A lot of time, part of it has to do with what happened the day before, or what’s going to happen today.”
It might sound like a more formal start to the day than the Tigers were used to, but Hunter says the atmosphere is loose. Ausmus is apparently quite capable of matching Leyland’s sense of humor.
“He has us laughing – our energy going already, before we even get out there on the field,” Hunter said.
Leyland has kept an appropriate distance at spring training, but he hasn’t been hiding by any means. His presence – and that of stars like Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer – serves as a reminder that Ausmus is not taking over a rebuilding project. Detroit has won three consecutive division titles and enters 2014 with one of the most talented rosters in baseball.
But the lineup will look a bit different after the Tigers traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler in the offseason. Detroit also signed Rajai Davis, adding more speed to what was a plodding group in 2013.
Ausmus has encouraged his team to be aggressive on the bases during spring training. The Tigers managed only 35 steals last year, 10 fewer than any other team. Ausmus wants players to look for opportunities to take an extra base — unless they’re told otherwise.
“They all have the green light to start, but certain situations dictate that I take it off,” Ausmus said.
He’s willing to tolerate a few more outs on the bases in spring training, hoping his players will learn what they can get away with. Then the team’s approach can be fine-tuned once the games start counting in the standings.
Shortly after Ausmus was hired, Detroit also announced that Matt Martin would be the team’s defensive coordinator. Martin will help the Tigers with positioning in the field, using charts and film in a way that may signal a more proactive approach defensively than in years past.
After the season starts, it will be easier to evaluate Ausmus’ influence, but for now, the Tigers are buying in to the subtle changes he wants to see in the team’s approach. Although he’ll have an experienced roster to work with, Ausmus does face a challenge, trying to instill elements of his own philosophy for a team that may not need to change all that much to remain atop the AL Central.
“He communicates very well,” Detroit utilityman Don Kelly said. “It’s tough, I think, when you’re coming in. Jim did a heck of a job here — he’s a Hall of Fame-caliber manager. Coming into a situation like that, (Ausmus has) been his own guy. He hasn’t tried to be somebody that he’s not. He’s been very relaxed about it.”