Tell me, whom exactly would the Los Angeles Dodgers hire as an immediate replacement for Don Mattingly? Phil Jackson?
Sorry, there is no magic pill, no obvious internal or external choice to take over as Dodgers manager now, next week or even at mid-season.
Which isn’t to say that Mattingly deserves greater job security. Legitimate questions persist about his game management and even his famously level-headed personality. Those questions ultimately could doom him, either during the season or at the end.
Some scouts following the Dodgers wonder whether the team would benefit more from a take-charge type. And listening to the players, to a man, defend Mattingly, they sound almost too comfortable.
Of course, such things are impossible to quantify, and rarely get discussed when teams are winning. But the Dodgers aren’t winning, and the season is nearly one-fourth complete, and Mattingly is in the final year of his contract.
So here we go. But where?
Mattingly’s coaching staff includes two failed managers, Trey Hillman and Davey Lopes, and one who lacks major league experience, Tim Wallach. Tony La Russa keeps saying he will not manage again. Mike Scioscia remains employed by the Angels.
As part-owner Magic Johnson might say in one of his tweets, if he was being honest and wanted to paraphrase Rick Pitino: Dodger Nation, Walter Alston isn’t walking through that door.
What’s more, the Dodgers’ front office sure isn’t buying into any fire-the-manager talk, at least not yet. Club president Stan Kasten never has been a quick-trigger type. Injuries continue to deplete the roster (though sorry, the Yankees are ruining that excuse for everyone). Give Mattingly a healthy team, give him a better bullpen, and then we can judge — at least in a fair world.
Problem is, things aren’t always fair when a team starts the season with a $200 million-plus payroll and one of its new owners — uh, Magic — proclaims World Series or bust. Such talk is essentially hyperbole, but it speaks to the team’s expectations, which are undeniably high, almost suffocating.
The Dodgers declined to give Mattingly a contract extension last offseason, reasoning that the club was so strong, everything would work out. Well, think again. The team is last in the NL West with a 15-22 record and rapidly approaching the point where club officials can say, without reservation, that they gave Mattingly a fair chance.
Still, some of this stuff figures to even out, if only the Dodgers can wait. The team leads the NL with a .337 on-base percentage, but is next-to-last in runs. Why? Because it’s 13th in slugging and 13th in OPS with runners in scoring position. Logically, those rankings should rise. But I’m not sure I could ever make sense of a planet where former Dodgers bust James Loney has more home runs (three) than current Dodgers star Matt Kemp (one).
The bullpen is less of a mystery, which is to say, predictably volatile. Kenley Jansen and Paco Rodriguez are rolling. Ronald Belisario and Brandon League are struggling, and League soon might be out as the closer. Mattingly, meanwhile, has yet to prove he can effectively manage a pitching staff. But few things make a manager look worse than a bad bullpen.
Let’s see what happens when Zack Greinke returns, perhaps as soon as Wednesday. At that point, the Dodgers will have three legitimate top-of-the-rotation types – Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-Jin Ryu. And, at least in theory, the pressure on the bullpen should ease.
Let’s also see what happens when shortstop Hanley Ramirez returns from his strained left hamstring, sometime in June, and when Kemp regains his power, something that already has taken longer than the Dodgers expected.
A measured approach probably is advisable — some with the Dodgers believe that Mattingly, if given time to grow, will develop into a great manager. A measured approach probably is necessary as well, considering that no replacement could immediately transform the club into a run-scoring machine.
Still, this is a results-oriented business, and the onus is on Mattingly to prove worthy of his position. Even if he lasts all season, he almost certainly will be gone if the Dodgers fail to get it together, fail to make the playoffs.
Mattingly managed more aggressively last weekend, and his players rebounded from an eight-game losing streak by executing bunts and hit-and-runs while winning two straight at home from the lowly Marlins. Alas, the breather in the schedule was short-lived, and now another potential crisis looms. The Dodgers lost their series opener to the Nationals on Monday night, 6-2, and next face the Braves, Brewers and Cardinals.
One day at a time, but the bad days keep adding up. Kasten will never say, “Mattingly is our manager for the rest of the season” — such a statement would close off the club’s options. The likely scenario, if the team continues to sputter, is that the Dodgers would hire an interim, then conduct a search at the end of the season.
Scioscia, signed through 2018, indeed might become available at that point, not that he would necessarily want to manage a team that bears similarities to his current Angels underachievers. Another former Dodger, the Reds’ Dusty Baker, also would be a possibility, but his contract, too, would be a hurdle — he is signed through ‘14.
Getting ahead of ourselves? Maybe.
Fire-the-manager talk is premature. Until it isn’t. Whether the Dodgers want to admit it. Or not.