DETROIT (AP) — When Brad Ausmus was a player — which wasn't that long ago — the mental aspect of the game always came pretty easily.
"I always enjoyed the cerebral part," Ausmus said. "It was much more difficult to hit — that was the part of the game I didn't really enjoy."
Perhaps it was inevitable that Ausmus would become a manager, and he'll have that chance now. The Detroit Tigers hired the 44-year-old former catcher to replace Jim Leyland at the helm of the three-time defending AL Central champions. Ausmus has little managerial experience, and the Tigers will entrust him with a talented roster that is expected to keep right on winning.
"I'm well aware that you don't generally get dropped into a situation like I will be this coming season," Ausmus said. "I understand I'm very fortunate. That being said, I'm not taking anything for granted. No details will be glossed over. I'm not assuming anything going into the job."
Ausmus, who worked 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.
The Tigers lost to Boston this year in the ALCS.
"We're not going to re-invent the wheel here. This is a pretty darn good team," Ausmus said. "I think I would be foolish to come here and try to make sweeping changes."
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.
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. Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski said he'd planned to interview former Cincinnati Reds star Barry Larkin, but Larkin decided not to interview because he wasn't in a position to make the time commitment necessary for the job.
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.
"When we interviewed, we were — not just me — taken back at how impressive he was," Dombrowski said. "It really became quite clear for us, that he would do an outstanding job for us. It was probably not where I started, but it's where we ended, and we feel very good about that."
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," 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 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."
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.
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."