For Dodgers, with inflexible roster, time to flex muscles
It’s too soon for the Dodgers to panic.
But ask me again in a couple of weeks.
Don Mattingly’s team is an underwhelming 23-22, third in the National League West behind the rival Giants and surprising Rockies. Remarkably, the priciest collection of talent in baseball includes a bullpen that has tied the dreadful Cubs with 11 relief losses, the most in the majors.
The circumstances seem less alarming in light of the following: Clayton Kershaw’s 4.43 ERA should decrease, Yasiel Puig is one of the best baseball players in the world and many of these same Dodgers went on a 42-8 run through the middle of last season.
Yet, there’s no denying that the next two weeks represent a pivotal stretch.
Tuesday in New York, the Dodgers continue a run of six straight series against teams with losing records. (They lost the first, over the weekend in Arizona.) Even at this relatively early stage of the season, the moment has arrived for LA’s talented roster to coalesce.
Unlike last year, the Dodgers can’t blame injuries and wait for a revelation (Puig or Hanley Ramirez) to materialize and save the season. The Dodgers don’t have a single position player on the major-league disabled list, and left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is due to return this week.
So, as a practical matter, Mattingly has the team he signed up to manage. If the results don’t improve against inferior competition, Dodgers management will face a narrow set of alternatives if they decide a shakeup is warranted.
A managerial firing might be the natural baseball reflex, but it’s hard to view that as a viable option here. After surviving an even worse start last year, Mattingly signed a contract extension through 2016. (Then again, an ownership group that paid $2 billion to acquire the team might not worry too much about the cost of eating a manager’s salary.)
But it would be equally absurd to say the Dodgers should respond by spending more money to acquire more talented players. If anything, the Dodgers’ problem may be that an abundance of stars has created an inflexible roster.
Think about it: If you’re general manager Ned Colletti, what changes could you make?
The outfield quandary is well-known, with four starters for three spots. Puig is a superstar, but Matt Kemp still hasn’t regained his old form; neither Carl Crawford nor Andre Ethier is playing well enough to bring back much value in a trade.
Third baseman Juan Uribe and second baseman Dee Gordon have been two of the Dodgers’ top all-around players. Adrian Gonzalez remains a reliable run producer. Ramirez, in a contract year, has been less electrifying than he was in 2013. Catcher A.J. Ellis recently returned after having knee surgery.
So … which of them could Colletti plausibly send away and say his team is better for it?
Of all the players mentioned above, Ramirez is the only one who will become a free agent after this season. It would be nearly inconceivable for the Dodgers to trade Ramirez and insert a younger shortstop with better range … then again, we would have said the same thing about Nomar Garciaparra in Boston 10 years ago.
Mattingly led the Dodgers to within two wins of the World Series last year. He doesn’t deserve speculation about his job security. But it’s hard to know what will happen if the West Coast Yankees don’t emerge from their malaise by June 3 — the one-year anniversary of Puig’s debut.