With Dodgers reeling, Mattingly may be running out of time
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.