Braves' Gonzalez is first MLB manager fired; is Tigers' Ausmus next?
Why now? It's a question whose answer makes far more sense with regards to the potential firing of Tigers manager Brad Ausmus than it does to the actual dismissal of Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. Detroit, which was expected to contend, has underachieved on Ausmus's watch, and rumors of his demise have been swirling since last September; on Monday night, his frustrations boiled over. Atlanta, meanwhile, is amid a multiyear rebuilding program and has the majors’ worst record but was hardly expected to be competitive in the first place. Firing Gonzalez, as the team announced on Tuesday morning, won't change its fate.
The 52-year-old Gonzalez had been at the helm of the Braves since being hired to succeed the Cooperstown-bound Bobby Cox in October 2010, returning to the organization where he had served as a coach from '03 to '06 before spending 3 1/2 seasons ('07 to mid-'10) at the helm of the Marlins. His overall record of 434–413 (.512) papers over the dramatic ups and downs of his tenure. Though the team won 89 games in his first year, Atlanta's 9–18 September slide and season-ending five-game losing streak caused it to miss the playoffs by one game. The Braves won 94 games in 2012 but were eliminated by the Cardinals in the NL wild-card game, then 96 games and the NL East in '13 (the team's first division title since '05) before bowing to the Dodgers in the Division Series, with a late-inning collapse in Game 4 (with ace closer Craig Kimbrel looking on from the bullpen) looming large.
Atlanta has posted successively worse records in each season since. The Braves tumbled to 79–83 amid a second-half collapse in 2014—a season that ended with an abrupt change in the franchise's direction—then to 67–95 last year before bottoming out at a 9–28 mark thus far this season, including an eight-game losing streak in late April and a separate 2–9 skid in their last 11 games.
Amid the 2014 collapse, the Braves fired general manager Frank Wren and nearly axed Gonzalez as well, though Cox—who as a special advisor within the organization still wields considerable clout—successfully saved his protégé's job. That winter, with John Hart acting as interim general manager, the team thrust itself into a rebuilding program, shedding not only the unproductive Melvin Upton Jr. but also his much more productive brother Justin and other talented young players who could have helped keep the team in contention, such as Kimbrel, rightfielder Jason Heyward and catcher Evan Gattis. Similarly, last season and this past winter saw others dealt when they could have instead continued to bolster the team, including starters Alex Wood and Shelby Miller (the latter of whom was acquired for Heyward), third baseman Chris Johnson and shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
With John Coppolella now the general manager, the Braves have amassed a stockpile of even younger major leaguers and prospects via that whirlwind of trades, including 2015 No. 1 draft pick Dansby Swanson. In late March, Baseball Prospectus ranked the organization's farm system the game's second-best (up from 19th in 2015), adding that six of Atlanta's top 10 prospects had come via trades since the end of the '14 season and that "the foundation of the next great Braves teams has been laid on the trade market." Similarly, the Braves' system vaulted from 29th to second from '15 to '16 in the eyes of Baseball America.
Better days are ahead for the Braves, but the current product is inarguably abysmal, and not as well timed to the team's 2017 move to a new ballpark in Cobb County as hoped. With Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran the only remaining contributors of note from their 2013 playoff team, the Braves are an unappealing mixture of underproducing veterans and green youngsters. A lineup filled with the likes of Erick Aybar, Gordon Beckham, Jeff Francoeur, Kelly Johnson, Nick Markakis and A.J. Pierzynski ranks dead last in the NL in scoring (3.08), slash stats (.229/.292/.302) and home runs (11)—and that's with Atlanta bopping six in its last 12 games, including two in Monday night's loss, its first multi-homer game of the season. No Brave besides Freeman has more than one homer, and Markakis is the only other regular with an OPS+ above 75. Admittedly, the losses of Ender Inciarte to a hamstring injury and Hector Olivera to a domestic violence-related investigation haven't helped; the former is back in the lineup after missing a month, and the latter has been on administrative leave since April 13.
The picture is somewhat happier on the other side of the ball. While the team ranks as the league's fourth-worst in run prevention (4.89 per game), the rotation is in better shape, with Teheran, Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair and Mike Foltynewicz—the last three of whom were all acquired in that flurry of trades—all carrying ERAs of 4.05 or better; all four are in their age-23 to 25 seasons and are under club control through at least 2020. The bullpen hasn't been very good, though oft-injured Arodys Vizcaino, the new closer, has a 1.10 ERA with 12.7 strikeouts per nine.
While Gonzalez has his critics with regards to lineup construction and a penchant for small-ball tactics, it's not as though he could have magically turned the Braves’ current roster into a contender, nor was that the goal. It actually serves the franchise better to finish with the majors' worst record—for which Atlanta has a rival in the 10–27 Twins, but a five-loss cushion otherwise—than to improve. Perhaps with the word "tanking" being tossed around so frequently throughout the game, the Braves needed a scapegoat, but that's about the best rationalization for this move. Gonzalez's dismissal also marks yet another loss from the ranks of minority managers, leaving only the Nationals' Dusty Baker and the Dodgers' Dave Roberts—an ongoing problem for Major League Baseball.
Gonzalez wasn't the only one from the Braves' staff who was let go. Bench coach Carlos Tosca, who served alongside him in both Miami and Atlanta, was dismissed. First base coach Terry Pendleton will take over for Tosca, and Triple A Gwinnett manager Brian Snitker will serve as interim manager. The 60-year-old Snitker spent 1977–80 as a catcher in the Braves' organization, only briefly reaching Triple A. He's been managing off and on within their system since 1982, taking over Gwinnet in October 2013 after spending '06–13 as the Braves' third base coach. Gwinnet pitching coach Marty Reed has joined the team as its bullpen coach, with Eddie Perez moving from that job to first base coach.
As for the 47-year-old Ausmus, who took over for the retired Jim Leyland in time for the 2014 season and led them to their fourth straight AL Central title, his job has been rumored to be in jeopardy since late last season, during which the Tigers went 74–87 and finished last in the division. In August, owner Mike Illich fired general manager Dave Dombrowski and promoted assistant GM Al Avila to fill his position. A mid-September report that Ausmus would be fired did not pan out, but a 4–11 bellyflop since the calendar flipped to May has put him "in the crosshairs," to use his own words from last week.
While it wouldn't crack an Earl Weaver greatest hits list, Ausmus got his money's worth while getting ejected at the end of the fourth inning during Monday night’s strange 10–8 win over Twins. Like several of his players, the manager took issue with home plate umpire Doug Eddings over a called strike three on an inside pitch to Nick Castellanos from Twins pitcher Pat Dean. Eddings, who had been hearing complaints from the Tigers over the expansion of his strike zone, had engaged in an exchange with his critics in the team's dugout after the strike two pitch, to the point of taking off his mask to make sure that his warning to the bench was clear. Ausmus got the thumb one pitch later, after which he came out of the dugout and said (or rather, shouted) his piece. Fox Sports Detroit cut away to a commercial, but here's a clip of the offending pitch and Ausmus's reaction, which included him kicking up dirt, covering home plate with his sweatshirt and tossing his cap in disgust on his way off the field.
As Ausmus admitted after the game, he reached his boiling point over a combination of things he'd seen, including some sloppy defense from his team. The Tigers had pounced on Twins rookie Jose Berrios en route to an eight-run first inning, but quickly frittered away the lead, with Jordan Zimmermann allowing a two-run homer to Kurt Suzuki in the top of the second, a solo shot to Miguel Sano in the third and then four runs in the fourth, aided by throwing errors from Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ian Kinsler. Ausmus’s ejection spared him the sight of the Twins tying the game in the seventh when J.D. Martinez dropped Trevor Plouffe's fly ball, but homers by Castellanos and Martinez put the Tigers back on top for good. Still, Ausmus wasn't happy with Eddings's strike zone, saying, "There comes a point when you get seven, eight guys coming back from home plate complaining about the strike zone. They can't all be wrong."
Perhaps Detroit needs the kind of shakeup that dismissing Ausmus would produce, but with starters Anibal Sanchez (5.91 ERA), Mike Pelfrey (5.80) and Michael Fulmer (6.52) regularly getting lit up and Justin Verlander (4.71) scuffling as well, the 17–21 Tigers, now fourth in the division race, don't look like a contender. Although Zimmermann—whom the team signed to a five-year, $110 million deal this past winter—has pitched to a 2.45 ERA, the losses of Max Scherzer and David Price from the rotation and the erosion of Sanchez's and Verlander's performances have been too much to overcome. It doesn't help that the team's other marquee free agent, Justin Upton, has hit for a 58 OPS+ so far.
As with Snitker and the Braves, who have nowhere to go but up, maybe a new manager could get better results out of the Tigers. We may soon find out.