The Price of Contention: Is Mattingly the right guy?

Cal Sport Media/AP Images

The Dodgers declined to pick up a one-year option on manager Don Mattingly this offseason.

The Dodgers’ new owners have spent more than $600 million in acquiring players since they bought the team less than one year ago. They will enter the 2013 season with the highest payroll (more than $220 million) in baseball history.

Now the only question is if they can they turn money into wins.

We’ll take a look at some of the issues facing the Dodgers as they enter a season filled with promise but, as always, fraught with peril. What are the costs -- and what are the opportunities -- inherent in such a high-stakes gamble?

Next up: Is third-year manager Don Mattingly the man to lead this team far into October?

The Dodgers gave $42 million to a Cuban defector, Yasiel Puig, they had scarcely had a chance to scout. They put about $100 million into a stadium they won’t even commit to staying in over the long term. They paid $62 million to sign a pitcher, Hyun-Jin Ryu, that their general manager, Ned Colletti, had never seen in person.

To cap it all off, they signed (at the time) the most expensive right-handed pitcher in baseball history, Zack Greinke.

But while all this was going on, they declined to pick up a one-year option on manager Don Mattingly, probably for less than $2 million. No matter what the club says or how gracefully Mattingly accepts it, that is a telling omission.

Exactly what it tells us isn’t quite as crystalline. Does it mean Dodgers owners or president Stan Kasten -- I don’t think it’s Colletti -- aren’t sold on Mattingly’s style? Do they think he’s too laid-back to manage a team with massively paid players up and down the roster, that he won’t be forceful enough to stand up to all the egos?

Does it mean they want to retain a lever -- Mattingly’s job status -- should this experiment in hyperconsumption prove misguided? Or, is it, despite all appearances, simply a matter of time before they lock up his services?

Until the Dodgers exercise Mattingly’s 2014 option, the players will know their popular manager is in limbo. Might that add to the already sizable pressure on their shoulders?

Whatever fans think of Mattingly’s style, it’s hard to imagine he’s not well-liked inside his clubhouse. Players have to respect his resume. He was a fringe Hall of Fame-caliber player, a .307 lifetime hitter and team captain. He seems relatively easy to play for. He rarely criticizes players in the media, probably because he played under George Steinbrenner, who seemed to relish it.

“The guys I have talked to said he’s good at his job,” new pitcher Zack Greinke said last month.

When the story of Mattingly's option first surfaced in the Los Angeles Times, the manager insisted afterward he was not mad, only a bit surprised. When the topic has popped up as spring training begins, Mattingly has tried to quash it.

"It can be part of the noise. I'm not going to be a distraction for this club,” he told MLB.com. “That's one thing I've never been. I always feel I'm going to be part of the solution. I'm not going to be part of the problem.”

We all need to remember he hasn’t been doing this very long. Colletti took a lot of heat two years ago for hiring a guy who had never managed an inning at any level. If Mattingly occasionally makes in-game mistakes -- and people will remember his decision to have Jamey Wright walk Angel Pagan to get to red-hot Marco Scutaro the night the Dodgers were eliminated last September -- it doesn’t mean he’ll make them again. How good were you two years into your profession?

Mattingly comes across as the type of manager who builds relationships with his players, rather than the stern authority figure type who chooses to view them all as nearly inanimate cogs in his designs. Most people would be amazed at how little interaction there is between some managers and their players.

What we shouldn’t forget is how he helped keep the Dodgers in contention early last season despite a rash of critical injuries and a roster patched up with aging retreads and Triple-A caliber talent.

Then again, maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe this ownership group views Mattingly as the right guy -- patient, supportive -- for a scrappy group of young overachievers, but wonders how he’ll handle veterans with a world of money and expectations.

We don’t know, because the owners aren’t talking about it. But we do know that they’re -- at least for now -- reserving the right to keep their options open.