I’m not the owner, president or general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, so I can’t tell you for certain whether Dodgers manager Don Mattingly is on the hot seat after an 8-10 start.
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But if he is, he shouldn’t be.
The Dodgers are 2-7 since the Rumble in San Diego, and it is hard to blame Mattingly for their shortcomings during that stretch. Most notably, the team’s once-abundant pitching depth has evaporated: Zack Greinke, Chris Capuano and now Chad Billingsley are on the disabled list, and Aaron Harang was traded because — at the time, way back on April 6 — the Dodgers had more than enough pitching.
At present, the Dodgers’ rotation consists of Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Josh Beckett, Stephen Fife and Ted Lilly, who is set to come off the DL and make his first major league start since last May 23 against New York Mets sensation Matt Harvey. Of that group, only Kershaw has an ERA below 4.00 in the majors this year.
In a February Los Angeles Times story, Dodgers partner Magic Johnson said anything short of a World Series berth “is not a good season for us.” Would Magic have said that if he knew this would be his starting five by the end of April?
Johnson also told Times writer Bill Shaikin, “If something happens and we don’t get off to a good start, we’re not going to panic.” For Mattingly’s sake, one hopes that ownership’s definition of a “start” goes beyond 18 games.
However unwarranted it would be, the elements exist to create speculation about Mattingly’s job security: His contract expires at the end of this year, the Dodgers have the National League’s largest payroll and the team is in fourth place in the NL West.
There is plenty of time for the Dodgers to recover, but the absences of Greinke and Billingsley merit a recalculation of just how good this team ought to be.
Greinke’s anticipated recovery from his Carlos Quentin-inflicted broken collarbone puts his return in mid-June. The Dodgers’ $147 million pitcher will miss one-third of the season — at the very least.
Billingsley, though, is the wild card. The Dodgers feared — as far back as last year — that his right elbow would require Tommy John surgery. Sunday, he hit the DL with what was rather ominously described as “right elbow pain.” Billingsley is expected to undergo an MRI this week. If it reveals a tear, he could be done for the season.
Even if Billingsley is out for a few weeks because of tendinitis, the Dodgers will be stuck with a very ordinary rotation (outside of Kershaw) for the foreseeable future. That’s not the fault of Donnie Baseball.
Apart from the pitching concerns, the Dodgers’ lineup has been next-to-last among NL clubs in three noteworthy categories: runs, home runs and batting average with men in scoring position. That’s shocking — even in a small sample size — for a lineup consisting of stars Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier.
It’s not necessarily an issue of “chemistry,” in the sense of clubhouse camaraderie. But more than one scout has pointed out to me that the Dodgers’ at-bats seem disconnected. “Not team-conscious at-bats,” was how one talent evaluator described it. Too often, the Dodgers fail to move runners over or drive them in — which can be the result of a poor approach.
The fix could be as simple as Kemp returning to form. He went 6 for 13 during the Dodgers’ weekend series in Baltimore, including 3 for 5 with an RBI and run scored in Sunday’s win. He can be the best player in baseball — and was at this time last year, before injuries hit. But Kemp also is coming off extensive surgery on his left shoulder and has yet to hit a home run this season. Until Kemp hits for power again, the lineup questions will persist.
Mattingly’s critics would say a person of his stature in the sport — six-time All-Star, former MVP — should be able to address the Dodgers’ inept situational hitting, even if established veterans are among those struggling. I don’t disagree. But he wasn’t the one who constructed a team of expensive stars who have been slow to develop on-field cohesion.
Hanley Ramirez, one of those expensive stars, could supply some of the right-handed power that’s gone missing during Kemp’s struggles. But it’s been three years since Ramirez’s last productive season, and he has yet to appear in 2013 because of surgery on his right thumb.
Ramirez has played 64 career games as a Dodger, with 10 home runs and a .774 OPS. Apparently, that’s sufficient for him to have a bobblehead day on April 30. In fact, Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times reported that Ramirez wants to be back in the lineup for the giveaway night.
The notion of a promotional event influencing (or at least coinciding with) a player’s return from the disabled list is very LA — and quite apropos for a franchise trying to restore its big-spending brand and full marketing might.
The Dodgers’ owners did, in fact, hand Mattingly an expensive roster. That’s not the same as building a team of championship players.