MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Management

Don Mattingly (B+)

Sometimes, I think we underestimate just how bad of a situation the 2011 Dodgers were for a rookie manager to get shoved into. As if getting handed the reins to a team with no managerial experience wasn’t tough enough, Don Mattingly was lucky enough to finally get his dream job on a team that suffered through one of the worst off-field seasons of any club I can remember in decades. That’s on top of an on-field collection that featured two superstars but far more dead space than bright spots.

That’s a team that could have collapsed, and not just in a traditional “we’re going to lose 98 games” sort of way, but in a “we’ve totally given up and we’re going to be an embarrassment on and off the field” sort of way. You don’t have to squint to hard to envision a scenario where we’d have been calling for Mattingly’s head at the end of the worst season in the long history of the Dodger franchise.

But it didn’t happen. The team was awful for the first few months, losing games and being uninteresting while doing so and losing nearly the entire bullpen to injury, but we never questioned their effort. Save for Andre Ethier’s usual outbursts, we never heard about problems in the clubhouse, and from our external view, Mattingly was able to keep the club focused on the field and not in the courtroom. By the end of September, as the team suddenly turned into a second-half force, I had no choice but to praise Mattingly’s performance:

Now let’s be clear, because we talked about this last week when discussing Jeff Pentland vs Dave Hansen: with the exception of the new-and-improved James Loney, this team largely turned around because they turned over their roster. They had more Juan Rivera & second takes of Jerry Sands and Dee Gordon, as opposed to hundreds of plate appearances wasted on the gimpy and useless like Juan Uribe, Dioner Navarro, Marcus Thames, and a less-than-healthy Ethier. A manager, no matter how beloved or despised, can only have so much impact on a game. But had things been allowed to fall apart even more than they had in the middle of the season, there might not even have been the opportunity to rebound.

No, he hasn’t been perfect, because this is the same guy who has killed us with bunts, used Mike MacDougal in big spots, and who once chose Juan Castro over Sands and others to pinch-hit with the bases loaded, which also meant Kershaw came out too early and Lance Cormier had to be used to blow the game. Then again, what manager is? Perhaps I’m colored because I was very vocally disliked Joe Torre, but complaints with managerial decisions seem to be cut by a factor of five this year.

Don Mattingly isn’t going to win the NL Manager of the Year award, nor should he, yet he probably will get some back-end support, and it’s well deserved. If a year ago at this time, nearly to the day, we were worried that with everything else the Dodgers had going on, they’d also have to deal with an inexperienced manager no one could count on, now we’ve seen that Mattingly is capable of keeping the players focused and working, no matter what kind of garbage is coming from the outside. In a season of small victories and big defeats, that’s one to be proud of.

Two months later, my opinion hasn’t changed. Mattingly’s not the perfect manager, just because nobody who likes bunts as much as he does could be. But in a trying season, he proved masterful at keeping the clubhouse focused and the players under control; his (and Davey Lopes’) impact on Kemp alone should be worth a raise. Considering how little I thought of Torre and how worried we were about Mattingly to start the year, 2011 was a successful one from the bench. Now let’s hope that Mattingly spends his winter checking out run expectancy charts, can we?

Ned Colletti (D)

(As a reminder, this covers only Ned’s moves from the end of the 2010 season to the end of the 2011 season, so it’s not the place to complain that this year’s club had Dioner Navarro instead of Carlos Santana, or that Juan Rivera was re-signed for far too much.)

Let’s start with the positives, because there honestly weren’t many. Aaron Miles, Mike MacDougal, and Dana Eveland were the kind of decent zero-cost, mild-return scrap-heap pickups that Colletti does a good enough job of finding every year, and swapping out Marcus Thames for Juan Rivera at basically no cost worked out wonderfully, at least at first. Getting a decent reliever in Blake Hawksworth for the brutal Ryan Theriot was solid, though somewhat marked down because Colletti had acquired Theriot in the first place, and while trading away Rafael Furcal he picked up an interesting if somewhat fringy prospect in Alex Castellanos. Oh, and he signed Chad Billingsley to a reasonably priced three-year deal, which was nice, and even though it completely failed to work out, trying to go overboard in pitching depth by signing Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla to round out the rotation was a clever idea, at least until Garland let it slip that other teams didn’t like his medical reports.

Got that? Good. Now let’s recall how we felt about the 2010-11 offseason back in Februrary:

I’ll be the first to say that this hasn’t exactly been the brightest offseason around here. We’ve been dismayed at the seemingly excessive contracts handed out to Matt Guerrier, Rod Barajas, and Juan Uribe. We’ve cringed at the impending disastrophe of the JaMarcus Gwybbons, Jr. situation in left field, wondered why they couldn’t find a righty partner for Andre Ethier, been disappointed over the inability to upgrade on Casey Blake, and resigned ourselves to another year of mediocrity from James Loney. We’ve been terrified at both how there’s no good option for a #2 hitter and how the lineup as a whole seems to have been assembled with no regard for OBP. We’ve worried about atrocious outfield defense and considered what things may have looked like if the near-misses for aging vets Aubrey Huff , Michael Young, and AJ Pierzynski hadn’t been misses at all. We’ve fretted that minor-league deals or not, historically poor players like Juan Castro and Aaron Miles are in the mix and just may make the team, and we’ve wondered when and if proven young talents like Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley would see long-term deals.

With the exception of the fact that Billingsley did end up getting signed, how much of what worried us before the season no longer seems accurate after it? Not a whole lot; we expected most of those moves to work poorly, and they largely did. Besides, that list doesn’t even include the fact that Colletti had actually picked up the team half of Scott Podsednik‘s 2011 option, which Podsednik miraculously declined, or that Dioner Navarro was handed a job that he in no way deserved.

And that’s what really bothers me the most, you know. It’s one thing when a well-thought-out plan doesn’t pan out, because that’s happened to every general manager in the history of baseball, and it’s happened to all of us in our day-to-day lives… and it’s another thing when a collection of moves which you know aren’t going to work don’t work. We knew a lineup full of low-OBP guys would have trouble scoring runs. We knew Blake couldn’t stay healthy. We knew Ethier wasn’t going to hit lefties. We knew going after Huff was an awful idea, and consider it a bullet dodged that it didn’t happen. We knew Navarro wasn’t better than A.J. Ellis. We knew Thames and Jay Gibbons were not the solution in left field. We knew that Guerrier wasn’t going to be a difference-maker in the bullpen. I’ll grant that we didn’t exactly know that Uribe would be quite this bad in year one, but we knew that he wasn’t worth the contract. Those things were almost certainly not going to work, and they didn’t; pressures from the McCourt divorce aside, these are the reasons why the Dodgers were such a lousy squad through the first few months of the year.

I basically said as much in June, as things really looked bleak

The point is, this was always a flawed team, one that few thought was going to head anywhere unless everything worked out completely perfectly. It hasn’t, and while the depths we’ve seen lately may have been deeper than expected from a team we thought would be at least competitive, little here has been a complete surprise. For once, that’s not entirely Frank McCourt’s fault. Off-field distractions aside, the Dodgers were one of the more active teams in free agency last winter, and though the payroll isn’t to the levels it really ought to be, it’s also not a $50m shoestring budget like other teams have to deal with. This is the team that Ned Colletti put together, and it hasn’t been pretty.

Once the season started, Colletti’s main role was filling in holes of a roster decimated by injury and looking around to see what was out there if Hiroki Kuroda accepted a trade. Kuroda didn’t, but credit to Colletti for at least acknowledging the team was in sell mode this year. Of course, the former PR man did have his usual “foot-in-mouth” moment early in the season, publicly stating Jonathan Broxton was out as the closer weeks before that was actually true. And then out of nowhere came the Trayvon Robinson deal, just seconds before the July 31 deadline, which was so universally reviled that it turned Colletti into a national punchline. (Okay, more of a punchline.) My thoughts on the matter are well-known, and I’m not going to repeat them all here… but okay, I wrote a ton about it, so here’s two paragraphs:

That means that fans – not just Dodger fans, this happens on all teams – tend to overvalue their own players, and even yesterday on Twitter I saw people groaning about losing Robinson before even knowing who was coming back. I think that’s short-sighted, because I have no problem with trading prospects. A solid farm system exists to provide value, and while the obvious outcome is “good young player comes up to join the big club”, value can also come from “good young player is traded for immediate impact veteran or another good young player”. Depending on the circumstances, trading a top prospect is not always a bad thing – as long as you get value back. If the Dodgers are deep in outfielders and short in catching, than the idea of trading Robinson for an impact catching prospect is not a terrible plan.

The problem here is that few think Tim Federowicz is an impact catcher, and many doubt he can hit enough to even be a viable major league starter. This isn’t a new theme, because so far in Ned Colletti’s tenure, he’s often spent prospects to get players who were not of equal value. I didn’t mind trading Santana when we all thought Russell Martin would be here for 5-7 more years; I hated trading him for two months of a good-but-not-great third baseman. (If Santana had been sent to Cleveland for CC Sabathia that year rather than Blake, I guarantee you there wouldn’t have been anywhere near the same outcry.) I didn’t mind the idea of trading James McDonald & Andrew Lambo, two players unlikely to be stars, but the problem was a team that had no business going for it in 2010 trading them for an elderly reliever who wasn’t going to make a difference. This is why the Robinson trade stinks so bad, because you’re trading a top-5 Dodger prospect for three guys who are barely top-25 Red Sox prospects.

And even though Robinson had an uncertain debut in Seattle and may never pan out, that’s still the point – the idea that you likely could have gotten more in return for him than what they did. Even if neither Robinson or Federowicz become anything, it doesn’t feel as though Robinson’s value was utilized fully. Though we’ve never doubted his passion or humanity – made clear in a rare August interview – we’ve also never doubted that one of the brightest moments of his tenure was that flickering hope that the Cubs might actually be interested in bringing him aboard.

But Ned is what Ned is, and he’s been around long enough that it’s foolish to hold out hope that he can change. If anything, watch the rush for a new owner closely, since new owners often like to bring in their own people.

******

That wraps up this year’s edition of the season in review series. Thanks as always for reading and indulging the need to fill up down time in the fall months with such a long series.

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