Posted October 24, 2013

Mattingly, Dodgers together again for 2014 but beyond that . . . ?

Don Mattingly, Los Angeles Dodgers
Don Mattingly, Dodgers

Don Mattingly guided Los Angeles to within two wins of its first World Series berth in 25 years. (Chris Williams/Icon SMI)

At an awkward press conference earlier this week, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly suggested that even though the team’s option on his services for 2014 had automatically vested with LA.’s Division Series win over the Braves, it didn’t guarantee his return. While he has yet to receive a contract extension beyond next year, it now appears as though he’s staying put for at least the 2014 season. On Wednesday, his agent stressed that Mattingly would honor his contract, while club president Stan Kasten publicly expressed his support, telling reporters, “I’m anticipating a happy ending.”

Mattingly, who had no previous managerial experience before being promoted to succeed Joe Torre following the 2010 season, has been at the helm of the Dodgers for three years. During that time — all of it under the same three-year contract — he’s compiled a .536 winning percentage via 82-, 86- and 92-win seasons in which the team successively finished third, second and first in the NL West.

At Monday’s press conference, Mattingly sat next to general manager Ned Colletti and expressed frustration that his option had not been picked up prior to the postseason. He spent the regular season with his future in question and was nearly dismissed in May when the injury-wracked team was in the NL West cellar. “It’s been a frustrating, tough year honestly,” Mattingly said on Monday. “Because I think when you … come in basically as a lame duck and with the ($230 million) payroll and the guys that you have, it puts you in a tough spot in the clubhouse… I like being here, but I don’t want to be anywhere you’re not wanted.”

While Colletti publicly backed his manager on Monday, Kasten had yet to weigh in prior to Wednesday’s comments. The former had hired Mattingly to serve as a coach on Torre’s staff for the 2008 season and subsequently promoted him to manager. The latter, who did not take his position with the Dodgers until late April 2012, had previously expressed support for Mattingly but let him twist in the wind with his status unresolved just the same. While he didn’t directly address Monday’s inflammatory comments and has yet to speak to the manager directly since the team’s elimination from the NLCS last Saturday, Kasten expressed regret over the interpretation of his actions, telling reporters, “I’ve always thought that [he was coming back next year]. I’ve never had any doubt about that.”

Beyond the volley of comments, the lay of the land has changed at least somewhat since Monday’s debacle. Externally, the Dodgers’ declaration that Mattingly is under contract may have cooled the interest of other teams with openings, since his hiring would entail negotiations over compensation; in recent years, clubs have surrendered usable players in exchange for managers like Lou Piniella, Ozzie Guillen and John Farrell. While the Tigers’ job was freshly vacated via the retirement of Jim Leyland earlier this week, the Cubs and Nationals — the latter of whom has been most closely linked to Mattingly in the past — may be nearing the end of their respective searches after interviewing several desirable candidates.

Internally, while the Dodgers exercised their 2014 options on pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, first base coach Davey Lopes and third base coach (and potential Mattingly successor) Tim Wallach, they declined to do so for bench coach Trey Hillman, said to be Mattingly’s close friend, though he may remain with the organization in another capacity. That could be interpreted as a shot across the bow at the manager, but replacing Hillman should address Mattingly’s biggest area of weakness: in-game maneuvering.

Mattingly commands considerable respect from his players and has kept his clubhouses together in the face of adversity, such as when L.A. started 30-42 this year before reeling off a 42-8 run. However, his dated use of the low-wattage Mark Ellis in the number two spot in the batting order and general overuse of bunting have been hallmarks of his tenure, and several mistakes during the Dodgers’ playoff series against the Braves and Cardinals suggested an inability to think more than one step ahead, as opposing managers easily neutralized his moves.

Even in Los Angeles’ first postseason series victory since 2009, Mattingly wound up with egg on his face. Juan Uribe’s series-clinching homer in Game 4 of the Division Series followed two unsuccessful attempts to bunt (not Uribe’s forte in the first place). The next day, catcher A.J. Ellis ribbed his manager publicly in an interview on MLB Network’s Intentional Talk:

“You never bunt in baseball anymore, that’s what all the sabermetric people tell me. Stop bunting! No more bunting! Only pitchers bunt. Listen to me, Don Mattingly, no more bunting.”

The Hillman move heralds the hiring of a more savvy bench coach in an effort to improve Mattingly’s in-game management. The sabermetrically-minded Manny Acta, who didn’t find much success as a manager in Washington or Cleveland, appears to be an ideal choice if the Cubs don’t hire him to manage. Last year, on the topic of lineup construction, Acta told FanGraphs, “The main thing is scoring runs, so you need to stack up your best hitters up front. You forget about trying to put a guy in the second spot just because he can hit-and-run and bunt,” which is music to the ears of Mattingly’s critics.

Acta would also guarantee a bilingual presence on the Dodgers’ staff, bolstering communication with the contingent of Latino players that include Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig (whose handling may have been a source of tension between Mattingly and the brass). Assistant hitting coach John Valentin, whom the team intends to retain but has yet to re-sign for 2014, is the only coach on the staff who speaks Spanish.

Until Mattingly actually receives his extension, the final chapter of this saga has yet to be written, and it will be interesting to see whether the Dodgers decline requests from other teams to interview Wallach, said to be a potential candidate in Detroit given his connections to general manager Dave Domborowski dating back to their days in Montreal. But while it appeared quite possible that L.A. would need to consider Wallach and other options earlier this week, both sides have backed away from the precipice. After coming two wins short of a trip to the World Series in 2013, the Dodgers are placing their trust in Mattingly to take that next step.

This article has been updated to reflect a 2013 rules change allowing assistant hitting coaches to be in the dugout during games.

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