Don Mattingly's contract expires after the 2013 season.
That has significantly raised the expectations in Chavez Ravine. Just making the playoffs might not be enough. Do the Dodgers have to advance to the NLCS? Is it World Series or bust?
Raising the stakes for Mattingly even higher is his contract status. The three-year deal he signed when succeeding Joe Torre in the Dodgers dugout expires after this season. If the Dodgers don't meet expectations, his contract very likely won't be renewed. If the team struggles during the season, he could be fired.
A manager with no job security—working under so-called lame duck status—would appear to have less influence over players making millions of dollars and under contract for multiple years. Yet the Dodgers seem content to proceed with that situation.
According to the Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke, Mattingly approached the Dodgers about exercising his contract option for 2014. But the team—whether it was general manager Ned Colletti or ownership—declined. That puts Mattingly on notice.
The feeling from the team office—at least publicly—is that everything will take care of itself if the Dodgers win as expected. Perhaps that's how it will eventually work out. But the message is clear: Win or else.
Over the past six months, Colletti has made blockbuster trades to acquire Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett. Brandon League and J.P. Howell were added to the bullpen.
The team also invested $62 million—a $36 million contract and $26 million posting fee—in Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu.
Oh, and the Dodgers signed the best free-agent pitcher on the market, making Zack Greinke the highest-paid pitcher in baseball with a six-year, $147 million deal.
By spending that kind of money and making those sorts of additions to a roster that already featured Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers are expected to win big—and sooner rather than later.
The Dodgers have essentially become MLB's version of the Miami Heat. After signing LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwayne Wade, the Heat were expected to win championships immediately. When the team got off to a 9-8 start in the regular season, the pressure intensified.
The Heat eventually came together, with players figuring out their proper roles as they tried to fit together. Coach Erik Spolstra learned how to handle all that superstar talent and get them to work toward a common goal. But it took some time.
When the Heat didn't win a championship in the 2010-11 season, its first with James, Bosh and Wade, it was considered a failure. Never mind that the team had made a notable improvement, going from losing in the first round of the playoffs during the previous season to the NBA Finals the following year.
Just getting to the championship round wasn't enough. The Heat had to end the season holding up the trophy in celebration to fulfill the sky-high expectations they created.
The following season, the Heat did win the NBA championship that was expected of them. The team is in position to compete for another title this year, currently holding the best record in the Eastern Conference.
But championship glory didn't come right away. The Heat weren't the best team in the NBA the moment James, Bosh and Wade took the floor together for the first time. At the very least, the Heat needed the regular season to jell as a team. The coaching staff needed that time to determine how to get those players to work as a unit.
The same applies to the Dodgers and Mattingly.
Obviously, getting a basketball team to come together is different from how a baseball team melds over the course of a season. But Mattingly needs time—very likely a full 162-game season—to figure out his team.
What's the best batting order? Is Gonzalez or Kemp best suited to be the cleanup hitter? Who bats leadoff? Is it preferable to alternate between right and left-handed hitters as much as possible in the lineup or will it depend on what role each hitter is comfortable with?
How should the starting rotation be ordered? Is it as simple as going with Kershaw as the No. 1 starter and Greinke as the No. 2? Is Beckett the third starter? Where does Ryu fit in? What about Chad Billingsley, if his elbow has recovered by Opening Day? How does Ted Lilly factor into this mix?
If Colletti isn't able to trade Chris Capuano or Aaron Harang—or both of them—where do they fit in the starting rotation? Which pitcher is more amenable to pitching in the bullpen? Which of them is better suited to a relief role?
Mattingly faces similar questions with the Dodgers bullpen.
League is expected to be the closer, with Kenley Jansen as the primary setup reliever. But where do Ronald Bellisario and Matt Guerrier fit in?
Does Bellisario pitch the seventh inning, with Jansen and League to follow in the eighth and ninth, respectively? Or, along with left-hander J.P. Howell, will Mattingly use his pitchers according to matchups, rather than designated roles?
These are the sorts of questions that could take at least half a season, if not the full season, to answer for certain. Perhaps the Dodgers won't even click until late in the year. Maybe the team won't be at its best and ready to win a World Series until 2014.
Mattingly might realize how difficult this is more than any other current MLB manager.
After Colletti made his two big trades last season, the Dodgers basically had a month to fit all their new pieces together. Mattingly had to figure out his ideal lineup on the fly, rather than getting at least half a season to try various combinations or get players to accept certain roles.
Perhaps that experience gave the Dodgers manager a head start on 2013. Could that be one reason why the front office didn't pick up his contract option for 2014? Maybe the team feels that Mattingly has already gotten plenty of time—along with the season to come—to become familiar with his new players.
Maybe the Dodgers looked at Jim Leyland and the Detroit Tigers last season and saw a team that did just fine with a lame duck manager. The Tigers advanced to the World Series with one of the best pitchers and two of the finest hitters in baseball.
But Leyland has worked under that sort of contract status before. At this late stage of his career, he prefers one-year deals. Besides, Leyland has more assured authority in the Detroit clubhouse. The players know he's in charge. They're familiar with him and he's familiar with them. The Tigers know this situation works for them.
There's not that kind of certainty in the Dodgers' clubhouse and front office. That's why Mattingly deserves an extra year on his contract to show the players that he'll be around and should be listened to. Colletti and the team's ownership should express confidence in him.
Otherwise, Mattingly's job status will be a persistent question and distraction throughout the season. Players will be asked about it, as will Mattingly himself. Those questions will only increase if the team goes through a bad stretch.
The Dodgers don't need that. The team can eliminate such short-term distractions by simply picking up Mattingly's option. If he doesn't perform as expected, fire him. That will likely happen anyway. But don't make Mattingly's job any harder than it already is.
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