Maybe Don Mattingly is a good manager. Maybe he's a bad manager. Maybe, like his mentor Joe Torre, he's just four jobs away from the job that will turn him into a Hall of Famer. (The headline in the New York Daily News when the Yankees hired Torre: "CLUELESS JOE.")
Right now, Mattingly is taking his share of the blame for the Los Angeles Dodgers' 18-25 start, but blame is spread around to every corner of the clubhouse when you have a veteran roster of famous names, the highest payroll in baseball and playoff expectations and a lousy record. I suspect, however, the Dodgers would be something close to 18-25 regardless who was managing. "It ain't like football. You can't make up no trick plays," Yogi Berra once said.
After getting a vote of confidence from the front office -- Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said Mattingly is "doing fine" -- Mattingly looked like a genius on Monday. But any manager can look like a genius when he hands the ball to Clayton Kershaw. The current Best Pitcher on Planet Earth tossed a three-hit complete game in a 3-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers. While Kershaw was his usual dominant self in lowering his ERA to 1.35, we saw the two people who can ultimately save Mattingly's job (well, besides, Colletti and team president Stan Kasten): Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier.
The two guys in the middle of the lineup, who make nearly $34 million between them this year, both homered, but it was only Kemp's second and Ethier's fourth of the season. The Dodgers rank 29th in the majors in runs scored, and while you can blame Hanley Ramirez's injury, or the poor production from Luis Cruz, a large portion of that blame falls on Kemp and Ethier. Heck, Kershaw has one home run. Nick Punto has a home run. Kemp is now tied with those two guys. He's hitting .267/.315/.358 with 16 RBIs, and maybe the offseason shoulder surgery has affected him or maybe we're just waiting for a patented Kemp hot streak to kick in.
Ethier tripled and homered, raising his triple-slash line to .262/.345/.407. The problem here isn't as obvious as Kemp's power struggles; this may be exactly who Ethier is now at age 31, a good player beginning the decline phase of his career. That line isn't so different from the .292/.368/.421 Ethier put up in 2011, for example (although he played through some knee issues that year).
But even when hitting .284 with 20 home runs like he did last year, Either is more solid contributor than star. In fact, it's the money being paid to Kemp and Ethier that sums up some of the Dodgers' current and long-term problems. This may be their team not just for 2013, but for the foreseeable future. Consider their primary payroll obligations right now:
Kemp: $149.5 million through 2019 (34 years old)
Ethier: $85 million through 2017 (35 years old, could vest for 2018)
Carl Crawford: $106.7 million through 2017 (35 years old)
Adrian Gonzalez: $132.1 million through 2018 (36 years old)
Zack Greinke: $147 million through 2018 (34 years old)
That doesn't include Josh Beckett and Ramirez (signed through 2014) or some of the throwaway contracts, such as those of Chad Billingsley (signed through 2014 but out until sometime next year following Tommy John surgery), Juan Uribe and Brandon League. And it doesn't include whatever it will cost to retain Kershaw's services past 2014. Can you say $30 million per year?
If we assume Kershaw makes $20 million next year and then signs a long-term deal for $30 million per season, those five players plus Kershaw will be making an average of about $134 million per season through 2017. The problem isn't so much whether or not the Dodgers can afford that -- by all accounts the ownership group has bottomless pockets and doesn't care much about exceeding luxury tax thresholds (at least for now) -- but what are the Dodgers affording?
That core doesn't look like a core that's going to win in 2013, let alone five seasons from now. That group is akin to the Phillies signing guys such as Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley into their early and mid-30s, then watching them age and the team decline from World Series champs to contenders to mediocrity. Except at least the Phillies won something and dominated for years. What has this group done besides put Mattingly's head in the guillotine?
To be fair, the season is far from over and writing off the Dodgers now could be fateful words. Kemp may heat up, Greinke is back in the rotation, Ramirez will return from the disabled list, the bullpen may stop blowing late leads and Kershaw may win every start the rest of the season.
Still, I suspect Mattingly may not make it through the end of May. That would be the easy way out for Colletti and Kasten. But, hey, who knows, maybe they know a manager out there who has some good trick plays.