Donnie Baseball Is Not The Problem With The Dodgers

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Not being the problem doesn’t necessarily mean that Dodgers manager Don Mattingly won’t take the fall for the club’s 19-26 start with a $217 million payroll and flurry of expensive moves they’ve made since the group fronted by Magic Johnson took control of the club from Frank McCourt. The media is not-too-subtly pushing the Dodgers to fire Mattingly so there will be a juicy story to write about for a few days. I can guarantee you there are writers and bloggers who have already written their epitaph on Mattingly’s managerial tenure with platitudes as to why Mattingly failed: “Great players don’t make great managers.” “He didn’t have any managerial experience.” “The players weren’t afraid of him.” “The team isn’t that good.”

There’s an argument to be made for all of these assertions I suppose, but it comes down to the players. For the same reason rotisserie fanatics and computerized predictions don’t work out in practice, putting a team together by just buying a load of stuff simply because of name recognition, price and the ability to do so doesn’t work either. Like the nouveau riche who have no taste, concept for cohesiveness, nor sense of what will fit together, since the Johnson group took command, the Dodgers have bought or traded for Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon League and Hyun-jin Ryu. They purchased Mark McGwire’s services as hitting coach and made clear that they’re all in for the now and are also stocking up for the future by tossing loads of money around on international signings.

Mattingly was presented with a group of players that he was entrusted to jam together whether the puzzle pieces were from the same box and fit or not. The front office said, “Here. Win with this,” and expected him to do it immediately. And he hasn’t. Therefore he’s the one on the firing line.

Mattingly’s statement yesterday was taken by many as a “Go ahead and fire me,” announcement to the front office. I don’t think it was that. I think it was Mattingly trying something different from enabling and being Mr. Gentility. Blaming Andre Ethier and treating him as if he’s the root of all the Dodgers’ ills was grabbed and run with because he was the one who was benched yesterday and there has been the implication that he’s going to be platooned and the Dodgers would love to be rid of him and his contract. It’s ignored that during the Dodgers slow start Matt Kemp has been far worse than Ethier; that Gonzalez has admitted his power swing has been altered because of shoulder issues; that the entire pitching staff apart from Clayton Kershaw and Ryu has been hurt at one time or another; and that the only name player doing what it was they brought him in to do is Crawford.

If the Dodgers had a name manager in the wings to replace Mattingly—if Tony LaRussa or Lou Piniella wanted to manage—then they’d have fired him already. Who are they replacing him with? Bench coach Trey Hillman? He couldn’t handle the media in Kansas City, what’s he going to do with the worldwide scrutiny of managing the Dodgers? Larry Bowa? They’d tune him out immediately the first time he flipped the food table and rolled his eyes at Beckett for giving him 4 1/3 innings of 8 hit/5 run ball.

Who then?

Nobody. That’s who. They’re only six games out of first place with all of this dysfunction, so a few wins in a row will make the world look much rosier than it currently does.

If the Dodgers turn their season around and Mattingly’s managing the team when they do it, the outburst yesterday will be seen as the turning point. If they don’t and he’s fired, it will be seen as his parting shot at a group of underachievers to whom he gave a long piece of rope and they choked him with it. If they bring in a new manager and win, Mattingly will get the blame for not “reaching” the players; if they don’t, he’ll be exonerated and the players will be seen as a group of fat cats who have their money and no longer care.

In reality, it’s the players who haven’t performed and the front office who brought them in. Blaming Mattingly is easy and he does deserve a portion of it, but don’t think getting someone else will fix the Dodgers current mess because it won’t.

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Now The Red Sox Have To Hire Valentine

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They could’ve done it low-profile and told Bobby Valentine that they wanted to keep it quiet that they were talking to him to prevent the firestorm of excitement that’s going on now.

But the Red Sox let it play out in the public sphere that they decided to expand their search to include Valentine.

Now they have to hire him.

Having told Sandy Alomar Jr. that he’s out of the running for the job, that leaves Valentine, Gene Lamont and Torey Lovullo.

All due respect to Lamont, who did a good job as manager of the White Sox and was trapped in the Pittsburgh Pirates vacancy replacing Jim Leyland in the late-1990s enduring the same hopelessness that swallowed up Jim Tracy, he’s not Valentine.

Lovullo has been mentioned for multiple jobs over the years and will eventually get one of them, but it shouldn’t be in Boston taking over for Terry Francona.

The Red Sox decision is more simple than has been implied.

They can either clear out one or more of the dominant personalities in the clubhouse to send a message—Josh Beckett, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis—and move forward with a new core and younger manager who’s going to have the power to nudge the rest of the roster to follow rules that were ignored under Francona; or they can keep this veteran group together and hire a manager who’s not going to be as gentle as Francona was and allow the same nonsense to go on unchecked in an “what’s he gonna do about it?” sort of way as the players took advantage of their former manager.

The side issues with Valentine are irrelevant; there are warts with every candidate if you choose to look for them and sometimes those who appear best prepared for a situation—see Trey Hillman with the Royals—don’t work out.

A high-profile dance with Valentine that ends in him not being hired for whatever reason(s) makes them appear dysfunctional and fractured.

And that’s what put them in this position in the first place.

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Dayton Moore’s Strengths Are Superseded By His Weaknesses

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Baseball’s lower-echelon is inhabited by a “genius” (Billy Beane‘s Athletics are dreadful); an “Amazin’ Exec” (Jack Zduriencik’s Mariners couldn’t win without being able to score); and a boy wonder (Jed Hoyer of the Padres looks terrible in comparison to the man he replaced, Kevin Towers, who has the Diamondbacks in contention as the Padres are floundering).

But what of an executive whose work is ongoing? One who has made some tremendous acquisitions through the draft, but has shown drastic flaws in major aspects of how he runs his club?

When Dayton Moore was hired by the Royals to be their GM, I thought it was an inspired choice. Not only did he have a solid reputation as a development man, but he’d worked under a fine executive in John Schuerholz with the Braves and made well-thought-out changes to the way the Royals ran their scouting staff and minor league system.

There are people who are not meant to be the overseers of an entire operation and that appears to be the case with Moore.

The Royals have an abundance of talent finally bursting through to the big leagues. But that doesn’t eliminate the mistakes and haphazard intractability/capriciousness Moore has shown in signing players and making trades.

Gil Meche pitched well for two of the five years for which he was signed as a free agent and the only saving grace for Moore in the final year of the deal was that Meche basically gave $11 million back because he couldn’t pitch due to injury.

Willie Bloomquist, Jose Guillen, Kyle Farnsworth and Horacio Ramirez were predictable disasters and his trade of a power arm like Leo Nunez for a one-dimensional bat like Mike Jacobs were failures.

He jumped the gun in trading former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke and got a fraction of what he should’ve gotten had he waited.

Now the Royals are again in last place.

Now they’re considering dealing veterans to contending clubs.

But again, Moore has it wrong.

The price for closer Joakim Soria is said to be “exorbitant” for reasons that only Moore can understand. Soria was so bad earlier in the year that he lost his closer’s role and has had arm trouble in the past, possibly due to overwork at the hands of overmatched former manager Trey Hillman. Wouldn’t it be better to deal him now?

With Soria, at least there’s an argument to keeping him. He’s a proven closer and is signed through 2014 at a very reasonable rate.

But for the likes of Melky Cabrera, Jeff Francoeur and Wilson Betemit, Moore is being delusional in both his demands and vacillation as to whether or not he’ll trade them.

Cabrera has played well this season (37 extra base hits; 11 homers; .781 OPS); Francoeur is what he is—a defensive ace with some pop and a head as hard as quartz, but he has use for a contender; Betemit is Betemit—a journeyman player for whom the Royals should sell high while he’s back to the Betemit he was with the Braves and Dodgers and not the one from the Yankees and White Sox which allowed him to wind up with the Royals in the first place.

But according to this posting on MLBTradeRumors, the Royals are “willing to move Betemit in the right deal”.

Right deal?

What’s the “right deal”?

With all their young players starting to graduate to the big leagues, does Moore truly believe that Betemit, Cabrera or Francoeur are going to be key parts of a resurgence after the 2-3 years it’s going to take before they’re ready to contend?

I’m not of the belief that the GM should only get blame for the bad stuff and no credit for the good stuff. Royals Senior Advisor Mike Arbuckle was largely credited to drafting the foundation of the Phillies with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Cole Hamels with nothing but vitriol rained down on former GM Ed Wade.

It doesn’t work that way with me.

The GM is the boss; he gets the credit, he gets the blame.

It’s the same way with Moore.

He’s done a masterful job of finding talent like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Louis Coleman and others on the way.

The Royals are going to get better simply by nature of more talent in the pipeline that was accrued after Moore took control.

He gets the credit.

But the GM is still making ghastly mistakes at the big league level with free agents and trades.

He takes the blame.

To a large degree, the poor decisions sabotage the good work he’s done in building up that farm system.

He’s going to be the GM for the long term with a contract through 2014, but given the mistakes he’s made (and is apparently going to repeat again-and-again), maybe he shouldn’t be.

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Donnieball

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There is not one player on the entire Los Angeles Dodgers roster that can make a claim to having been better than an in-his-prime Don Mattingly.

Not one.

Even those who have superstar potential like Matt Kemp can only hope to be mentioned in the same breath with Mattingly.

That’s how great he was; how dangerous he was. In fact, you can make the Koufax/Puckett argument for Mattingly’s Hall of Fame candidacy. Both Sandy Koufax and Kirby Puckett had their careers derailed by injuries. Koufax’s arthritic elbow forced him from the game at the height of his powers at age 30; Puckett had glaucoma and was done at 35.

They’re in the Hall of Fame because of Koufax’s dominance over a 5-year period and Puckett’s combination of greatness and what he “would” have achieved had he played another 3-5 years.

Because Mattingly was sabotaged by back problems, his production took a dive from its tremendous heights; but from 1984-1989 there was not a better player at the plate or in the field than Mattingly.

Trapped as an innocent bystander in the Steinbrennerean purgatory of the Yankees in the 1980s, he never got the chance to show his wares on the big stage.

As the Yankees turmoil mounted and the revolving door of teammates and managers spun and spun and spun, Mattingly was at the center of the clubhouse—the hapless victim of circumstance—as things came apart.

It was only when he was a mere shell of his former self; when those back injuries limited him to being good as opposed to great and robbed him of his power and George Steinbrenner was suspended that the foundation of the late-90s championship teams was able to break ground under Gene Michael and Buck Showalter.

In a cruel irony, Mattingly retired the year before the Yankees 1996 championship.

Passed over for the manager’s job following Joe Torre’s ouster, he left and joined Torre with the Dodgers. It can be said—reasonably—that Joe Girardi was the wiser and safer choice because of his experience; but it can’t be discounted that had GM Brian Cashman chosen Mattingly as his manager, he would never have been able to fire him.

Ever.

No GM wants a manager he can’t fire.

Now that he’s the manager of the Dodgers, we’ll see whether the lack of experience will be mitigated by his status as a megastar player who’s seen it all; done it all; experienced it all. Mattingly can look at the swirling drama of the McCourts’ divorce, shrug and say, “You wanna know about nuts? I’ll tell you about nuts.”

How does this translate to managerial success?

Easily.

For every player who’s willing to play as hard as possible and respect his manager and coaching staff, there are those who try to exert their perceived authority and use a large contract and big numbers to bully their “bosses”. We saw it with Hanley Ramirez and Fredi Gonzalez last year.

After years of tolerating and dancing around Ramirez’s diva-like behaviors due to the player’s skills and close relationship with owner Jeffrey Loria, Gonzalez punished Ramirez for an egregious lack of hustle and engaged in a public spitting contest with his star player. In the short-term, Gonzalez was supported by the players, contemporaries and public opinion; eventually he was fired in no small part because of Ramirez. He landed on his feet with the Braves with his self-respect intact.

The attitude of certain star players was exemplified in Ramirez essentially saying, “Who’s he to say anything to me? He never played in the big leagues.”

Well, Mattingly not only played in the big leagues, but he was the MVP in 1985 and, as said earlier, was better than anyone on the Dodgers roster. In what would be an unsaid retort, Mattingly could put forth the aura of, “I was better than each and every one of you, so don’t come at me with that ‘who are you?’ horse(bleep).”

He wouldn’t say it because it’s not in his personality; but it helps that he wouldn’t have to say it.

If you saw Kemp’s hustle on Friday night in which he went from first to third on a hit-and-run ground out, it’s a good sign for the Dodgers that they’re playing hard and smart—the enigmatic and hard-headed Kemp in particular.

What people fail to understand when selecting a manager is that strategy is sometimes a small part of him doing his job; it’s not just about “I’m the manager, do what you’re told.”

As was shown with Ramirez, a star doesn’t have to exert much effort (literally and figuratively) to get the manager fired.

Controlling the players and the clubhouse can be far more important than the negligible lineup choices, pitching changes and whom to pinch hit—many of the results of said maneuvers are based on luck.

Mattingly knows what it’s like to be a superstar player and doesn’t have the peacock ego and rampant insecurity to make sure everyone knows he’s in charge by repeatedly saying it; he’ll be able to defer to pitching coach Rick Honeycutt on what to do with the arms; to ask coaches Trey Hillman, Davey Lopes and Tim Wallach (whom he beat out for the job) what they think without being threatened.

He’ll make his mistakes, but the players not wanting to let Donnie down will overcome them.

And he’s accustomed to lunacy.

That’s why he’s going to make it as a manager.

My podcast appearance with SportsFanBuzz previewing the season is posted. You can listen here The SportsFan Buzz: March 30, 2011 or on iTunes.

I was on with Mike at NYBaseballDigest and his preview as well. You can listen here.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

It’s available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

Now it’s also out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.


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