By: Holly Horning
One of the biggest questions being asked this season concerned what was going on with Miggy. He’s not hitting and appears to be somewhere else. Is it injury? Is it ageing?
Well, the good news is that it appears to be neither. The bad news is that whatever he has, it’s contagious. The offensive lineup most MLB analysts were raving about, has disappeared. Five batters are now hitting under .200. Two of the top hitters in all of MLB are close to .200. The heart of the order has disappeared and their group picture is now on the side of a milk carton.
Most disconcerting is that VMart, the passionate one on the team, is quiet. JD looks worried and Upton is aloof and not interacting with his teammates. Most of the team appears to be extras in The Walking Dead. Few appear to be fully in the present and many seem to be going through the motions. Most of the team looks distracted. Their body language looks universally poor and defeated.
If you peer into the dugout, notice how many of them are sitting by themselves. But have you seen how empty the bench is? Some players are retreating to the clubhouse when they are not needed. And that’s not a good sign. Add some chicken, beer and video games, and you’ve the Red Sox, circa 2011.
The first sign that something was amiss came on Opening Day. A game the Tigers won but you’d never know it by watching their tepid and restrained celebrations. The Marlins, on the other hand, were joyfully celebrating and hugging each other in their dugout after scoring each time.
Normally even-keeled players have been taking out their frustrations. In just this past week, we’ve seen Justin Upton get angry with Tyler Collins over a collision. He’s also thrown a few bats. Gose has been seen smashing his bat and helmet at home plate and the ever-affable Andrew Romine was seen trashing the dugout.
Only Ian Kinsler visibly appears to be trying to right this ship. When he gets on base, you see him punching the air and yelling encouragement to his teammates. He is the cheerleader. And he’s the only one. Until maybe James McCann returns.
This is a team-wide problem, not just an issue with a bunch of guys who aren’t hitting. It’s not a simple bad run or “April baseball.” It’s lack of focus. Sloppy play and sloppy baserunning. Serious and sustained hitting droughts. Loss of passion. And the increasing tendency to get at-bats over with quickly. There is no fight in these kitty cats.
This isn’t a normal phase in baseball. It’s a sign of an unhappy team. Something’s gotta give.
And unfortunately, this team is looking and reminding me more and more like the Washington Nationals of last year. A team that, on paper, had great talent, but couldn’t or wouldn’t produce. A team that, along with the Tigers, was labeled as one of the year’s greatest under-performers. A team that did not respond to their manager. A team that decided they wanted their sophomore manager gone, according to one player’s confessional, so they stopped caring.
If we use what happened to the Red Sox and the Nats, then these are classic signs that Ausmus has lost control of the clubhouse. Players who are no longer playing as a team nor sticking together. Guys with no fight to “be in it to win it.” Athletes who are going through the motions and showing no passion. Players who appear to look as if they’d rather be elsewhere.
It’s the body language and emotional clues that tell us this goes beyond the concerns solely focused on talent and skill.
Could the players see that Brad wasn’t going to make it through this year? Do they already have him pegged as a lame-duck manager? If so, maybe that’s why he doesn’t appear to have much influence this year with the players. It is widely-known in baseball that a manager without a new contract by the All-Star break (and also possessing not the best of records) at the latest loses a significant amount of control over his clubhouse.
But whether or not Brad has lost his team, there are things we cannot deny. A manager’s job is to unify, encourage, inspire and motivate his team. It is to pull the best performance out of each player. It is also about making everyone accountable. And it is about making them passionate about winning and not giving up. Ausmus has not done well at any of these endeavors.
As the manager, Brad naturally attracts the most attention and blame. He is the guy who is most directly responsible for the team’s performance. But he’s not the only guy who deserves blame.
And that takes us all the way back to the question that will haunt fans forever. (Other than “Why was Doug Fister traded?”) What did Dave Dombrowski see in a guy with no managerial experience whatsoever to make him hire Brad Ausmus to lead a team of all-stars and veterans to the World Series in his very first year? A year in which the window was starting to close and a sense of urgency needed to be implemented?
Dave deserves a huge heapin’ helpin’ of blame for creating what we are seeing today. But so does Mr. I who allegedly did not like Dave’s selection but signed off on it anyway.
And, of course, the players deserve a nice slice of the blame pie, too. Just because there may be no leadership, doesn’t make it right for them to put in less effort. But could it be that they are looking to facilitate a change sooner rather than later?
We may never know what issues are going on behind the scenes. The Tigers have a tendency to keep everything tightly under wraps and the dirty laundry rarely gets spilled. It’s too sad to be a joke, but the Tigers never seem to fire anybody. They release, retire and reassign instead. A peek into the Front Office is a reminder of executives past going back over 20 years. And that’s an issue, too, which will be discussed on these pages in the future.
But we do know that Al Avila was part of Saturday’s closed-door team meeting. And now he has inherited this mess from Dave. How he handles this will be one of the biggest markers – and one of the most telling – of his GM career.