The Los Angeles Dodgers are going big. They've upped their payroll over $200 million and loaded their roster with enough star power to make even the local movie stars blush, all for the purpose of re-establishing themselves as one of baseball's premier franchises.
But for all their cunning, the Dodgers may have one glaring weakness: their manager.
Don Mattingly has only been on the job for two years, and he has zero assurances that he's going to be on the job for more than a third year. The Dodgers have thus far refused to grant Mattingly such a level of comfort by declining to pick up his option for 2014.
This is a sign that the Dodgers don't have the utmost confidence that Mattingly is the man to manage the Dodgers. It's no surprise, then, that Mattingly himself sounds like he's lacking in the confidence.
"If we don't win and we're healthy, they really should look at it," Mattingly said over the weekend about the possibility of being removed as the team's manager, via Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. "This team has a lot of talent. My job, and my coaches' job, is to get them to play the game right."
He continued: "If we can't get them to play the game right, they may have the wrong voice. There's a ton of talent here."
Well then. This is all more than a little bewildering.
It's been known for a while now that Mattingly would be heading into 2013 as a lame-duck manager, and now here he is sounding like the ultimate lame duck. With this quote now out in the open, Mattingly is effectively trusting his players to follow him when it's apparent that he has doubts.
Lest any Dodgers fans out there have the urge to RABBLE! RABBLE! RABBLE! about me making a big nothing out of one quote, Mattingly's apparent lack of confidence hasn't materialized thanks to just a single quote. He's been talking like this dating back to December.
After the Dodgers spent a couple truckloads of money to sign Ryu Hyun-Jin and Zack Greinke, Mattingly came out and attempted to downplay expectations in a radio interview on ESPNLA 710.
We're going to have to work hard and there are going to be a lot of hills left to climb and we're going to have some low points during the season. For me, it's not fair to guys. They bust and they bust and they bust, then you run into two hot pitchers in a five-game series, they shut you down and they're out of the playoffs. It's tough for me to be down on guys after they battle 162 (games) for you.
A couple weeks later, Mattingly opened up to Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times about the Dodgers' decision not to pick up his 2014 option:
It was a 30-second conversation about the option, they said that wasn't the plan for me or my coaches, it was a moot point, and I'm fine with that. But you would have liked for them to pick up the extensions so the players could be shown confidence. You never want it to be like, after a couple of bad games, people are saying, 'Oh, are they gonna change managers now?
Mattingly added: "If I don't get my guys to play well, it's on me, it's my fault."
In regards to the expectations the Dodgers are facing this season, to say that "it's not fair" for the Dodgers to face New York Yankees-like expectations is downright silly. It's entirely fair to expect greatness out of the Dodgers because, well, that's exactly what the organization is clearly looking for.
Since Magic Johnson and his cronies took over, the Dodgers' payroll has ballooned from just over $100 million to well over $200 million (see Cot's Baseball Contracts). Magic himself has said—most notably after the Dodgers' big trade with the Boston Red Sox and after the signing of Greinke—that the whole idea is to win. Given the size of their payroll, their collection of talent and the fact that they're not falling apart at the seams like a certain pinstriped team, the Dodgers should win in 2013.
As for Mattingly's remarks about his contract option, why plant a seed of doubt? By acknowledging that lame-duck managers can lose their grip on their team and then find their way to the hot seat, he may have Dodgers players thinking that's exactly where he'll belong if the team gets off to a bad start or finds itself struggling in 2013. Why not just say he's not worried about it?
Perhaps Mattingly was trying to light a fire under the Dodgers by making them consider the notion that the team is doomed so long as its manager is a lame duck. If so, that was a bold play. Bold to the point of being reckless.
Or maybe Mattingly was just being honest. Maybe he truly was worried then about potentially losing the clubhouse at the first sign of trouble in 2013, in which case his most recent comments would clearly suggest that he's not about to brush his doubts aside.
Worse, it sounds like Mattingly's doubts have gone from being over his contract to being over his leadership. Only one of those can be fixed with a pen and paper, and it's not the latter.
And let's be real here. It's entirely possible that Mattingly isn't the right voice for the Dodgers. He has been in the past, but the name of the game has changed since he was first hired.
That was after Joe Torre stepped down following an 80-82 season in 2010. At the time, the thinking was that Mattingly was perfect for the job because he had the right mix of leadership and teaching skills to appeal to what was a younger, less established team.
"As Joe himself said, it was time for a new voice," said Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti during spring training in 2011, via Sports Illustrated. "What Joe was implying is that Don is somewhat closer in age and may relate better."
Mattingly himself said that he wanted his guys just to be loose and to have fun, and he promised not to overreact to mistakes.
"I understand how hard this game is," he said.
To Mattingly's credit, the Dodgers were better than advertised in 2011, winning 82 games and finishing in third place in the NL West. A brilliant season by Matt Kemp certainly helped, and that's something else that Mattingly deserves credit for.
"Our relationship drove me," said Kemp of Mattingly to MLB.com's Peter Gammons last year. "He is a person that everyone trusts. He is a person who always had my back. That's who he is, that's why he is a great manager."
The Dodgers were decent when they revolved around Kemp in 2011, and very good when they revolved around him early in the 2012 season. By the middle of May, the Dodgers were 23-11 and Kemp was on his way to a landslide win in the National League MVP voting.
But then Kemp got hurt, the Dodgers played less than .500 ball the rest of the season and the structure and nature of the team changed dramatically in the summer months. First came Hanley Ramirez, then came Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett. The winter brought Ryu and Greinke, and Carl Crawford will be joining the mix for 2013 as well.
The Dodgers are no longer a younger team based around a single superstar. They're not as ancient as the Yankees, to be sure, but they have a wide collection of veterans who are all well paid. Nobody sees a bunch of upstarts when looking at the Dodgers, and rightfully so.
San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt warned in February that you can't buy chemistry, and the Dodgers could very well end up proving his point. Ramirez was energized by the trade that sent him to the Dodgers, but he had a history of insubordination with the Miami Marlins. It's obvious now that Crawford doesn't mix well with fan and media pressure, and he hasn't necessarily escaped these things in Los Angeles. That same concern applies to Gonzalez and to Beckett.
It should also be at the back of Mattingly's mind that the Red Sox guys didn't do so well the last time they were playing under a lame-duck manager. Bob Hohler of the Boston Globe revealed that Beckett basically ran amok under Terry Francona in 2011 and that Gonzalez didn't have as large a presence in the clubhouse as he did on the field. Crawford said he felt like he had lost Francona's confidence when he was dropped in Boston's batting order early in the 2011 season.
Silliness such as this may be awaiting Mattingly in 2013. To deal with it, he's going to have to be just as good at managing egos as he is at coaching. To this end, he'll do himself a huge favor if he takes after his predecessor.
Torre was a master at keeping everyone focused amid overwhelming pressure, and Mattingly was around him for long enough to pick up a thing or two. He was Torre's hitting coach for several years with the Yankees, and a couple more with the Dodgers after Torre bolted from New York following the 2007 season. Maybe he'll be able to manage the Dodgers' clubhouse like Torre used to manage the Yankees' clubhouse.
So yes, there's hope for Mattingly. He may sound like a man getting ready for his own funeral, but he's not categorically doomed.
He's just on thin ice, for the Dodgers have given him the ultimate test. They've handed him a roster that must not fail, and Mattingly is going to have to adjust his style to fit this roster knowing full well that the clock is ticking.
If he can't get it done, there won't be a second chance.
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