This past weekend, the Detroit Tigers announced that manager Brad Ausmus will not be asked back for a fifth season in 2018. The club, entering a rebuilding phase, has decided to go in a different direction and will not renew the contract of the former Major League catcher.
Any time I hear about Ausmus, I am reminded of a movement across baseball that bubbled up in the 2012-2014 time frame, of which he was a part. During that period, at least three former 40-something year-old catchers without MLB managerial experience were handed the keys to their respective kingdoms.
First was Mike Matheny, with as different of a background as could be compared to the man he replaced starting in the 2012 season, Hall of Famer Tony La Russa. Matheny had no prior managing or coaching experience in professional baseball other than as a roving minor league catching instructor and was MLB’s youngest manager when hired following the 2011 season.
Mike Redmond took the reins of the Marlins in 2013 and Ausmus joined the Tigers as their field boss the next season.
It was hoped Redmond would shore up the crumbling Miami foundation following the tumultuous 2012 season with Ozzie Guillen at the helm, but time has proven that stability and the Marlins mix like oil and water. Before taking over in Miami, Redmond had two seasons of managing experience in Class-A.
Like Matheny, Ausmus followed a long-time managing great heading into retirement. Ironically, Jim Leyland is close personal friends with La Russa. Between the conclusion of his playing career in 2010 until his hiring by Detroit, Ausmus had worked as a special assistant with San Diego.
It is not as if former backstops do not have a long history becoming managers later, with Mike Scioscia and Joe Girardi among current examples, and even going back to Yogi Berra and many, many more. Still, these three were a bit surprising at the time and seemed to represent a trend.
Now, two of the three former catchers-first-time managers have been fired, with only Matheny continuing.
Working under less than ideal conditions in Miami, Redmond was the first to go, axed 38 games into his third season, in May 2015. Impatient owner Jeffrey Loria added Redmond to a long list of his former managers, including in-season firings Jeff Torborg and Fredi Gonzalez and one season-only skippers Girardi and Guillen. Redmond is currently the bench coach of the Colorado Rockies.
Ausmus was given four years with Detroit during a time of significant transition. In his first season, 2014, Max Scherzer was still atop the rotation with another future Cy Young Award winner, Rick Porcello, also among the starting five. The 90-win club reached the playoffs, but bowed out in the first round.
Late in a very rough 2015 in which the Tigers won just 74 games, long-time GM and team president Dave Dombrowski was released, then quickly snapped up by Boston. Assistant Al Avila took over as general manager. Ausmus then led the Tigers to an 86-win 2016, falling just three games short of a wild card berth as the upstart Cleveland Indians took over the American League Central.
For 2017, the Tigers were generally pegged as a second-place club again behind veterans Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton and Justin Verlander. Mounting losses coupled with impending free agency led to an in-season decision to begin the rebuilding process, with the latter three players mentioned dealt away for prospects. Mike Ilitch, team owner since 1992, had passed away in February, adding to the changes. Once the retooling direction was set, going in a different direction with the manager followed.
Unlike the others, Matheny’s clubs have logged six straight winning seasons and made regular post-season appearances from 2012-2015, though the team was eliminated earlier and earlier each year – until they missed out on October baseball entirely in 2016.
His seat grew hotter not only because of the emergence of the Chicago Cubs as the new powerhouse in the division (ironically Cleveland’s opponent in the 2016 World Series), but also because his 2017 club languished with a sub-.500 record into August. Chicago had turned the corner against its long-time rival by defeating St. Louis in the 2015 post-season before taking the division by 17 1/2 games in 2016.
Further complications included poor fundamental play by the Cardinals and questionable in-game decisions by the manager, especially with pitching. In a June segment, MLB Network ranked Matheny 30th among his peers as a tactician.
Yet, unlike Ausmus, who managed as a lame duck in 2017, Matheny has greater job security – including a significant financial commitment from his club. St. Louis’ skipper was given a three-year contract extension last fall - a year early.
Also unlike the Tigers, which had to deal with the white-hot Tribe, the Cardinals could remain close enough in the 2017 standings, in part because the Cubs could not repeat their 2016 dominance this year. As recently as last week, St. Louis had an identical record to the playoff-missing 2016 Cards. Chicago had double-digit fewer wins compared to the year before, however, because of its own sub-.500 first half.
That bought the Cardinals time.
Instead of selling off their impending free agents, including starter Lance Lynn and former closer Seung-hwan Oh, St. Louis stood pat in July. Reportedly, the Cards did shop players, but did not find deals to their liking. However, in August, they moved out disappointing starter Mike Leake to Seattle and brought in reliever Juan Nicasio from Philadelphia in early September, immediately installing him as closer.
The club responded with a 15-10 September record coming into Thursday that still has kept them on the very fringe of the wild card hunt. Whether or not the Cardinals made the October tournament, which is now extremely unlikely (at 0.8 percent), Matheny was not in jeopardy of joining Redmond and Ausmus on the former catcher-managerial unemployment line – at least not any time in the foreseeable future.
This past weekend, Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. reiterated his manager’s job security.
“I think he’s the right guy to lead us into the future,” the team owner said.
Still, given the events of the last three years, including most recently just five wins in 18 tries this season against the Cubs, what is almost certainly two consecutive playoff misses as well as a possible slide to third place in 2017, serve as vivid reminders that the Cardinals are consistently being outgunned in the battle for NL Central supremacy.
Matheny must reverse his club’s downward trend in 2018 to further separate himself from his fired catcher-turned-manager contemporaries.
Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 18-year history. He also holds the all-time NL Tout single-season records for wins and saves. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.