Things Don Mattingly Must Do to Turn Dodgers' Paper Champion into Real Champion

Gil ImberAnalyst IIDecember 19, 2012

Things Don Mattingly Must Do to Turn Dodgers' Paper Champion into Real Champion

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    With the Los Angeles Dodgers already obliged to dole out a team record-$200 million-plus in 2013 payroll expenses, anything short of a World Series berth—and victory—may very well appear to be a total loss.

    From the former Boston big bats to a slew of new arms on the hill, skipper Don Mattingly has been tasked with the unenviable chore of turning this paper champion into a serious contender.

    With 2013 fast approaching, here are several actions Mattingly must take to effect a World Series return for the first time in 25 years.

Offense: Find the Winning Formula

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    With a lineup of power sandwiched between two guys named Ellis (Mark and A.J.), Don Mattingly will have many an opportunity to experiment in 2013.

    When the Dodgers struggled in mid-2012, Mattingly famously jumbled lineup after lineup after lineup, with the hope of shaking his sluggish offense into the postseason.

    At the time, Mattingly explained his moves as a strategy meant "to break the routine." 

    By the time 2013 rolls around, the club's routine should begin to solidify—Matt Kemp's shoulder is expected to heal in time for Opening Day, where he will join Carl Crawford, whose spring training (or lack thereof) will be key to predicting his 2013 performance.

    Rounding out the middle of the lineup are Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Andre Ethier and Luis Cruz, who all—save for Ethier—were not Los Angeles locks on Opening Day 2012. Now that personnel will enjoy a greater sense of permanence, Mattingly will be free to put together a most daring lineup.

On the Bases: Taking a Chance

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    Just two seasons ago, Matt Kemp stole a career-high 40 bases to accompany a league-high 39 home runs, 126 RBI and 115 runs scored.

    Last year, and perchance thanks in part to the injury referenced in the preceding slide, Kemp's numbers began to slide.

    As far as the stolen base count is concerned, some attributed the fall in part to decreased aggressiveness on the bases—and not just with Kemp.

    Responding to allegations that he was "playing it too safe," skipper Mattingly described his 2012 managing style:

    There’s kind of certain spots I like to hit and run because the club (is in) kind of a changing of the guard. I really don’t want to take the bat out of guys like Matt (Kemp) up there. I haven’t hit and run with him all year long, I haven’t hit and run from Dre, Adrian (Gonzalez)… it’s like in a sense you take the bat out of their hand.

    Based on such rationale—that taking chances on the bases while Kemp, Ethier or Gonzalez-type players are at bat is akin to taking the bat out of their collective hands—one might logically conclude that the 2013 Dodgers stand no chance at aggressiveness on the basepaths, not with the addition of Crawford and deletion of a dicey hit-and-runner like Shane Victorino.

    After hearing Mattingly's comments, broadcaster Kevin Kennedy allegedly stated, "that's inexperience talking right there."

    Still, when Mark Ellis committed an incredible baserunning gaffe on October 3—thrown out trying to extend a leadoff double into a triple in a one-run game—the incident perhaps opened the door, allowing teammates' enthusiasm for aggressive baseball to sneak out.

    Said catcher A.J. Ellis, "It's a great baseball play...a really good aggressive play, he was trying to keep the momentum going."

    Ethier elaborated: "We've been playing aggressive baseball. I think that's how we got out of the funk we were in...Lately we started being more aggressive."

    Changing of the guard indeed.

More Arms: Better Bullpen Management

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    When Clayton Kershaw was the only consistent Dodgers pitching performer during his 2011 Cy Young season, Mattingly was accused of bullpen mismanagement:

    He leaves pitchers in too long when signs of struggling emerge and pulls other pitchers out when they are still in a groove.

    When Kershaw was joined by former Red Sox hurler Josh Beckett late last season, Dodger pitching—at least Kershaw and Beckett—experienced a terrific September, with Beckett collecting three wins to three losses.

    Specifically, Beckett's two tough-luck defeats were both 2-1 losses wherein Beckett pitched fewer than six innings. Was there more gas in the tank?

    Meanwhile, Kershaw won three and lost two, including a 1-0 heartbreaker in Arizona. With Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu joining the squad's top four, Mattingly will experience a greater opportunity to trust the staff more consistently.

    Kershaw, for one, is a proven workhorse, routinely pitching seven-plus innings while giving up two or fewer runs. With Brandon League's return following his two-win, six-save performance over 27.1 innings in 2012, the Dodgers are in the driver's seat in regard to both the front and back end of the defense's No. 1 position.

Speaking of Greinke: Talk to Hillman

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    A mild-mannered dugout presence, Dodgers bench coach Trey Hillman has experience with newcomer Zack Greinke—after all, it was Hillman who piloted Greinke's 2009 Kansas City Royals to a lackluster 65-97 record, though Greinke thrived that year with 16 wins and a 2.16 ERA, also recording a league-low 1.07 WHIP.

    Greinke additionally won the 2009 AL Cy Young Award.

    When Mattingly was suspended "for excessive arguing" following umpire Angel Campos' August 16 ejection of center fielder Matt Kemp, it was Hillman who filled the role of interim manager on Aug. 18 and 19, steering Los Angeles to a perfect 2-0, outscoring their opponent 11-2 over the course of the weekend, and snapping a two-game losing streak.

    The so-called role of the bench coach may not quite be as ideal as a wily legend "ready to whisper sage words of advise into [the manager's] ear," but Mattingly would be wise to lean on Hillman in 2013—at the very least, when Greinke takes the mound.

Chemistry and Fostering Leadership

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    No team—not even a paper champion—is a lock to win the World Series. Since 2003, the club with MLB's highest payroll (New York Yankees) won the Fall Classic just once.

    To that end, the sense of magic and mystery surrounding championships points to an all-too-familiar theme—that of chemistry.

    As five-time World Series champion "Mr. October" Reggie Jackson said, "[Chemistry] is all about strong leadership. You've got to have someone to keep everything and everybody in order."

    For Mattingly's Dodgers, that leader could be the skipper himself, it could be a superstar like Matt Kemp or even ownership. In the end, the who is not as important as the existence of leadership in some form.

    As Jackson said, it just has to be someone.