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DETROIT — The Detroit Tigers hired Brad Ausmus as their new manager Sunday, turning to a 44-year-old former catcher with almost no managerial experience to replace Jim Leyland at the helm of the three-time defending AL Central champions.
Ausmus, who worked most recently in the San Diego Padres front office as a special assistant to the general manager, emerged as Detroit's pick less than two weeks after Leyland stepped down. He takes over a team that has reached the AL championship series three straight years and should be well positioned for another big season in 2014.
Ausmus managed Israel's team for the World Baseball Classic, but he's inexperienced as a manager compared to some other potential candidates. Ausmus played in the majors from 1993-2010.
"This is a winning franchise," Ausmus said. "I think I should be held to that standard as well."
The Tigers also interviewed Padres bench coach Rick Renteria and Los Angeles Dodgers third base coach Tim Wallach — as well as Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon.
If continuity was Detroit's main concern, McClendon may have been the choice, but the Tigers acted a bit more boldly in hiring the Dartmouth-educated Ausmus, whose name also recently surfaced in connection with the Chicago Cubs' job.
There will be one important holdover on Detroit's coaching staff. Leyland's bench coach Gene Lamont will remain in that role. Ausmus agreed to a three-year deal with a club option for 2017. Lamont agreed to a two-year deal.
Ausmus is 24 years younger than the man he's replacing, and he inherits a roster with a high payroll and several big names, including Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. He'll have a chance to win right away, and he'll have to deal with high expectations.
"Anybody you hire has some risk attached to it," general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "Even a veteran manager that you bring in with a new club, where they are in their life, there's risk attached to that."
The contrasts with the crusty-but-respected 68-year-old Leyland are obvious, and Ausmus will have to prove he can guide this star-studded team through the inevitable rough patches — but it wasn't long ago that Ausmus was on the other side of that player-manager relationship. He played in 1,971 games with four different teams. He played for the Tigers for part of the 1996 season, and again from 1999-2000.
"I've got to be me," Ausmus said. "Jim Leyland — great, Hall of Fame manager. I'm not going to be Jim Leyland. I would never make an attempt to be Jim Leyland. I'm going to be who I am."
Mud Hens outfielder Ben Guez grew up in Houston, and one of his favorite players as a youngster was Ausmus when he played for the Astros.
“I had his posters on my wall, and I grew up rooting for him,” Guez said. “When I heard he was a candidate for the Tigers [manager] job, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if he got it?’ ”
Guez is one of the few players who can claim to have had Ausmus as a manager. The only prior managerial experience for Ausmus was an manager for Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
While Guez cautioned that his time with Ausmus was limited — the team was united with its manager for just three games and roughly a week together — Guez was impressed with his Team Israel manager.
“What I liked most was his calmness,” Guez said in a phone interview. “The vibe he gave was that he was never stressed, and he gave you a calm confidence.
“That’s a good feeling to get from your manager. And I found out he’s a quality guy who treated everyone with respect. He’s a fun guy, and he helped keep the dugout and the clubhouse loose. And he’s as smart as they come.”
Detroit is one of at least three teams with first-time major league managers who should have a chance to win right away in 2014. The Washington Nationals hired Matt Williams to replace Davey Johnson. The Cincinnati Reds, who fired Dusty Baker after a 90-win season, went with pitching coach Bryan Price as their new manager.
“Everybody’s a pro, especially in the major-league clubhouse,” Guez said. “I think the manager has a greater impact on the younger guys, especially the guys who don’t have a lot of major-league experience.”
Ausmus is the latest former player to take over a contending team with little managerial experience. Mike Matheny succeeded Tony La Russa in St. Louis after the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011, and Matheny reached the NL championship series in 2012 and won the National League pennant this year.
Former New York Yankees star Don Mattingly is the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team the Cardinals beat in the NLCS this season.
"I was just playing the game three years ago," Ausmus said.
"I have a pretty good understanding of how the locker room dynamic is."
John Wagner contributed to this report.