The Angels' firing of Brad Ausmus highlights their rocky road back to contention

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

From one manager over 19 seasons to what will be three in three, from annual relevance to one postseason appearance across a decade, from 28 games ahead of the Houston Astros five years ago to 35 games behind them today, the Los Angeles Angels on Monday continued with the business of searching for a way back.

They fired manager Brad Ausmus after one season, that season following a generation of Mike Scioscia leadership and concluding with the organization’s first 90-loss season since 1999 (the year before Scioscia was hired).

Arte Moreno’s franchise has burned half of Mike Trout’s career while reaching vainly for heartier at-bats and innings to stock around him, and while seeking a sustainable organizational philosophy, exercises notable only for the quiet Octobers that resulted.

The obvious play is for Joe Maddon, the charismatic former Angels coach who 24 hours earlier had been let go by the Chicago Cubs. By midday Monday there had been no contact between the club and Maddon, though Angels management intended to reach out in the coming days. After leading the Tampa Bay Rays to a World Series, winning one with the Cubs and leading those clubs to eight postseasons in 14 years, Maddon is expected to be a popular candidate in an offseason of managerial upheaval in the league.

Replacing Ausmus is one thing, of course. Building a better baseball team is another. It’s the second part that has seemed to confound a once energetic organization that has suffered because of general manager turnover, poor choices in free agency, patchy (if improved) player development and an inability to gain traction against the elite in the American League.

Monday’s announcement that Ausmus would not return was made by general manager Billy Eppler. The club picked up Eppler’s fifth-year option at the end of August, and so the coming managerial hire — his second in a year — and offseason acquisitions are his to engineer.

ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 22: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim GM Billy Eppler talks to the media after Brad Ausmus was named the Angels newest manager and 17th different manager in club history during a press conference held on October 22, 2018 at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, CA. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Ausmus had served Eppler as a special assistant in 2018, what became Scioscia’s lame-duck season, after four seasons as manager of the Detroit Tigers. He was chosen over several candidates, reportedly including Eric Chavez, Omar Vizquel and Astros bench coach Joe Espada. The right man to replace Scioscia or not, Ausmus took over what proved to be an injury-prone team with a threadbare pitching staff that had banked on comeback seasons from veterans Matt Harvey, Cody Allen and Trevor Cahill. None panned out. His pitching coach, Doug White, had not before run a major-league staff.

In early July, Tyler Skaggs, among the most popular Angels, died of an accidental drug overdose at 27 years old, and so a team mourned him even as the baseball season carried on. Ausmus carried on as well, often speaking for the club in the wake of the tragedy, often while fighting tears.

From July 31 until Sunday, however, the Angels had a record of 16-37 and were barely competitive. The season ended with Trout, Justin Upton and Shohei Ohtani injured and/or recovering from surgery, all factors that might have mitigated a fourth-place finish in the AL West and led to a second season under Ausmus. He’d agreed to a three-year contract.

Instead, the Angels opened the job just as five other managerial positions became vacant, with others likely to follow. The hire will seem important, because they always do, and Maddon’s ultimate choice is likely to feel to Angels fans like a referendum on where the club stands and what its immediate potential is. But the overriding issue before Moreno and Eppler is the second part, where the club stands, and how a team loses 63 games in the standings to the Astros over five seasons, and why a player such as Mike Trout must choose loyalty over relevance, and whose responsibility that is.

A new manager probably is warranted. So it’ll be important, especially for Eppler and his future with the Angels, to get this one right. The real work will follow, then, the part about putting good players on the field and keeping them there, the part about winning big-league baseball games, the part about finding a way back. Because this, this doesn’t look great, and that has nothing to do with Brad Ausmus.

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