Posted May 20, 2013

With Dodgers reeling, Mattingly may be running out of time

Don Mattingly, Los Angeles Dodgers
Don Mattingly, Dodgers

Don Mattingly’s high-priced Dodgers are in last place in the NL West. (Chris Williams/Icon SMI)

The vultures are circling in Los Angeles. On the heels of a three-game sweep by Atlanta, and with an eight-game losing streak still a fresh memory, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly may be on the brink of losing his job. Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal speculated that the axe could soon fall, though the Los Angeles Times‘ Bill Shaikin reported that an unnamed club official said that the team has “no plans” to fire him.

It’s not just that the Dodgers have been losing a lot — they are in last place in the NL West, eight games below .500 at 17-25  and tied for the second-worst record in the league. It’s that they have been doing so in spectacularly gruesome fashion — playing sloppily and losing in the late innings — while bearing the weight of high expectations.

In their first full season under the Guggenheim Group, which purchased the team for a record $2 billion last spring, the Dodgers came in as just the second franchise to breach the $200 million payroll threshold; only the Yankees’ late-spring acquisition of Vernon Wells prevented Los Angeles from occupying the top spot. After taking on nearly $300 million in future contract commitments last summer and handing out the largest of the winter’s free agent deals to Zack Greinke (six years, $147 million), the team had distanced itself from the ways of tight-fisted former owner Frank McCourt and created the perception that Mattingly had everything he needed to win.

Yet when general manager Ned Colletti, who has been on the job since November 2005, received a long-term contract extension last September, Mattingly did not. His 2014 option wasn’t picked up either, despite having kept the team above .500 in both seasons at the helm amid distractions and disarray around him. While the Dodgers did discuss a new contract with Mattingly over the winter, their failure to relieve him from lame duck status has given Colletti and team president Stan Kasten an obvious fall guy.

But it’s not Mattingly who’s to blame for the slew of injuries that have keyed the Dodgers’ underachievement. Despite entering the season with eight candidates for the rotation, their starting pitching has been depleted as five different starters have hit the disabled list, including Greinke, who suffered a broken collarbone in a brawl, and Chad Billingsley, who underwent Tommy John surgery. The starters besides Clayton Kershaw and Hyun-jin Ryu — another pricey offseason expenditure — have pitched to a 4.63 ERA while averaging just a hair over five innings per start, and making quality starts just 36 percent of the time. That in turn has taxed a bullpen that has provided little relief, with a 4.61 ERA and a 42 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score, both of which rank second-to-last in the league. On the offensive side, Matt Kemp is stuck on one home run after offseason shoulder surgery, Hanley Ramirez has been limited to four games by thumb and hamstring injuries, Mark Ellis and backup Jerry Hairston have served time on the DL, and Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford have both been limited by nagging injuries. The team ranks second-to-last in the league in scoring (3.38 runs per game) and slugging percentage (.361).

The expensive, underachieving roster was assembled by Colletti, and while Crawford and Gonzalez have hit well this year, Andre Ethier — who signed a five-year, $85 million extension last summer — is batting just .255/.342/.369, which pairs poorly with Kemp’s .265/.311/.340. Josh Beckett has a 5.19 ERA and is on the disabled list, while the aged Ted Lilly — whom Colletti signed to a three-year, $33 million deal in December 2010 — has pitched in just 10 games in the past two seasons while making four trips to the disabled list. The bench has largely been a collection of futility infielders plus ancient catcher Ramon Hernandez, who has played one game since April 29, and who hasn’t hit safely since April 13; he’s occupied the roster even with young Tim Federowicz sometimes being carried as the third catcher.

Perhaps most damning for Colletti is the performance of closer Brandon League. Acquired from the Mariners last summer, League pitched well late in the year after the team ironed out his mechanics, but the three-year, $22.5 million extension to which Colletti re-signed him was about $1 million per late-season inning of overperformance. League isn’t nearly as overpowering as Kenley Jansen, who saved 25 games for the team last year before being sidelined due to a heart condition. Predictably, League has regressed, yielding three homers — two of them game-winners — while striking out just eight in 16 1/3 innings en route to a 5.51 ERA, and even that mark conceals the three unearned runs he’s allowed. Mattingly has admitted that he has mulled changing closers, and has turned to Jansen in some key spots; the latter took the losses in both Saturday and Sunday’s games, with League allowing two of his inherited runners to score in the latter.

It hasn’t helped Mattingly’s cause that the Dodgers have been losing the close ones, going 4-6 in one-run games and 9-13 in two-run games — the kind of contests where one defensive miscue or strategic failure can be connected back to the manager. They blew leads in the late innings in all three games against the Braves, and are now 14-7 (.667) when leading after five innings, the equivalent of three wins behind the NL average in terms of winning percentage (.813). They’re playing ugly baseball afield, ranking second-to-last in the league in defensive efficiency (.670), fourth in errors (33) and tied for third in unearned runs (21); six of those unearned runs came in this weekend’s series against Atlanta, five by the increasingly porous bullpen amid five errors. They’re second in the league in sacrifice bunts by position players with 10, burning outs with an offense that can ill afford it, and their pinch-hitters have hit just .188/.216/.271, for the second-lowest OPS in the league. No matter how Mattingly has mixed and matched his infielder-laden roster, Dodger shortstops and third basemen have combined to hit .189/.218/.260.

If Los Angeles does axe Mattingly, it has several candidates to replace him, though not all are particularly enticing. First base coach Davey Lopes compiled a .425 winning percentage in two seasons and change piloting the Brewers in 2000-2002. Bench coach Trey Hillman spent a little over two seasons leading the Royals to a .423 winning percentage from 2008-2010, and Shaikin suggests he could actually precede Mattingly in the pink slip department. Special assistant Pat Corrales is 72 years old and hasn’t managed in the majors since 1987. Perhaps the best internal option is third base coach Tim Wallach, who earned Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year honors at Albuquerque in 2009, was a finalist for the job that went to Mattingly in the fall of 2010, and interviewed for the openings in Boston and Toronto this past winter.

Mattingly is said to be respected by the players, and he has maintained a positive attitude in the face of the team’s woes — perhaps too positive. After being swept by the Giants at home from May 3-5, he famously said, “I really would like to sit here like I was all disappointed… I’m not at all disappointed with the way we played… I feel better about our club walking out of here than I did walking in.” That perceived lack of urgency has made him an easy target for pundits.

As with most managerial firings, the dismissal of Mattingly won’t solve all of the problems that ail the Dodgers. Los Angeles has plenty of talent on paper, and may well regress toward its true capability given more time, but time isn’t something of which any 17-25 team has an abundance. In the wild card era, teams that have started with that record or worse through their first 42 games have made the playoffs just five times in 18 years, and just three times in the past 16. Couple that track record with the aforementioned perception problem and the understandable impatience of an ownership group spending freely but watching its team lag behind the league nonetheless, and you have a recipe for a firing, one that seems bound to happen sooner rather than later.

9 comments
John NoLastName
John NoLastName

"The vultures are circling in Los Angeles."

And who, exactly, are these "vultures"? The sports news media? So we have the sports news media telling us that the sports news media are unhappy. Really? And does anyone doubt that if the Dodgers hadn't spent half the Gross National Product on unproductive players, the same sports media would be screaming that the organization wasn't "committed to fielding a winner"?

And what's the correlation between size of payroll and number of World Series won over the past 10-15 years, anyway? About zero?

mwr5053
mwr5053

Fat, drunk Tommy Lasorda is no doubt wondering why his name was not mentioned in the above article as one of the candidates to replace Donny Baseball.

flanalan
flanalan

He's saddled w/"Pulled Back Fat" Beckett and "God's Will" Gonzalez - what did we expect?

NoKasey
NoKasey

He also really needs to shave those sideburns.

BudkisMandel
BudkisMandel

How is this Mattingly's fault? If you look at the Dodgers, they had 8 potential Starting Pitchers before the season started.. Then idiot Colleti started dumping them for nothing! How many games has that aging back up catcher played in the trade for Aaron Harang? Now, with injuries.. they have 3 true starters who can actually win, and the worst bullpen in all of Baseball.. All of this for the highest payroll! Coletti should have hung onto every starter and made some of them relievers, and the Dodgers would have a totally different team.. Instead they let Pitchers walk or picked up garbage in return.. Colleti is the problem, when you leave an organization (Giants) and they go on to immediately win 2 world series, the owners should have known something was amiss. Instead, they brought in a Basketball guy in Magic Johnson, to make Baseball Decisions! You should have just flipped a coin. Now the Dodgers are stuck with Stike out King Kemp, I cannot hit lefties Eithier, and I am a china doll Hanley Ramirez.. The only guy's who are performing are Ellis, Punto and the other young guys... the young guys, gee go figure..People who have talent and youth, but no.. Dodgers prefer over the hill aging Ex-Stars who have huge holes in their game, and have been figured out.. and are now worthless.. Kemp, Eithier, Beckett, Hamilton, Pujols and that folks represents $1 Billion dollars, and that is just in L.A.! Moreno and Guggenheim would be better off donating their money to Charity, at least it would go to someone deserving of such gross mis-spending. 

kyyled55
kyyled55

@BudkisMandel Giants fan here. I agree with everything you say. And there is a really big smile on my face while I nod my head. How did that old song go? "Can't buy me looooooove..."

 :)

BudkisMandel
BudkisMandel

@kyyled55 @BudkisMandel 

Cannot buy me love was one of 5 movies I owned in College.. because I was so poor, I couldn't afford any TV service.. and the Dodgers have a bunch of illiterate piles of garbage who never even sought U.S. Citizenship, let alone went to college..  They all make over $20 Million per year, and guess what? You Pay for it!

Look up Frank McCourt, how much State Tax did he pay? ZERO

How Much Federal Tax? ZERO

On Profits of $1,000,000,000... So indirectly, because the Dodgers exist and cheat on their Taxes, you and I have to make up for it.. I just say, bring in the bulldozers, fill in Chavez Ravine and turn it into a Football Stadium where my Chargers can play.. Release and deport the Dodger Players, they do not deserve a dime.. 

In San Diego, they were mocking Kemp for pledging to donate $1,000 to charity for every home run he hits this year.. so far, it has reached $2,000! Cool, that will not even pay the fee's on such a deal. 

In addition, on top of Kemp's $24,000,000.00 salary, he gets $400 a day for food. That is Kemp's per diem for food for just 4 days.. Spoiled coddled idiots, the entire lot of them..

kyyled55
kyyled55

@BudkisMandel @kyyled55 My condolences, my friend. I suffered through the lean years with my Giants and it was hard to watch sometimes. Matt Herges as a closer, anyone?


But we didn't have a $200 million payroll to explain away when we were bad.

I can't get on board with all your "deport them" stuff, as for all we know the non-US players on their team have done their due diligence to be here without issue. But they are most certainly overpaid and underperforming.


Again, good times.