Is Don Mattingly really ready to be a major league manager?
The short answer, of course, is nobody really knows. That includes Mattingly, who when asked the question point-blank at his introductory news conference in September answered with a less-than-commanding, "I think I am." And there is one certainty as the legendary first baseman and longtime manager-in-waiting prepares to embark on this journey when spring training begins Wednesday:
Less-than-commanding will be less than adequate.
If Mattingly isn't ready, we'll probably know pretty quickly. But the guess here is that after seven years at the right hand of Joe Torre, Mattingly is more than ready.
For the skeptics, the obvious place to point is to Mattingly's lack of experience, but he isn't unique among Los Angeles Dodgers managers in that department. Of the past eight, five came to the job with no previous managerial experience at the major league level, and yes, that includes Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda.
What sets Mattingly apart on that list is that he is the only one who never managed in the minors. That's a glaring hole on his résumé. Also glaring is a cringe-worthy moment against the San Francisco Giants last year during one of the few chances he got to manage the Dodgers after a Torre ejection: Mattingly's double mound visit forced him to change pitchers when he didn't want to and probably cost the Dodgers a game.
But Mattingly, even after being named manager, kept a commitment to manage the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League. A manager must follow complex plans in that sometimes-convoluted circuit, where each player comes with a set of instructions from his organization for how he is to be used. So if you can juggle a roster in the AFL, you can most likely juggle a roster in the National League.
But managing a slapped-together group of highly touted prospects from five different organizations hardly prepares a manager for the challenge of handling a major league clubhouse, filled with major league personalities, over a long season.
If Mattingly has learned his lesson about in-game strategy gaffes, the real test of whether he is ready for the job will come in how he leads a club that appeared to lose focus and commitment as things began to unravel during the second half of last season.
The day after the season, meeting with reporters on the club-level concourse on a rainy morning at Dodger Stadium, Mattingly was asked what one quality he wished he could add to the team. "Mental toughness," he said. As goals go, it shouldn't have sounded as lofty as it did. But this is a team that has basically folded its tent in the final weeks of both of its most recent non-playoff seasons (2007 and 2010), a team that appeared to spend all three days of a rare visit to Fenway Park last summer paralyzed by culture shock, and a team whose All-Star closer was so broken by August you actually expected him to fail.
So by giving the answer he gave, Mattingly also may have provided the key criterion on which he ultimately will be judged, at least as far as his rookie season is concerned: Can he bring that mental toughness to this team?
It seems inevitable Mattingly will have a better overall relationship with his players than Torre did, if only because he already has a relationship with them -- an advantage Torre didn't have when he came from New York three years ago.
Torre favored a cerebral approach to hitting (an American League style, if you will, of working counts whenever possible, extending at-bats and wearing down opposing pitchers). Many of the Dodgers' players -- most of whom were considerably younger than the veteran rosters Torre had with the Yankees -- didn't warm up to that approach for a long time, if ever. The overall hitting philosophy won't change -- Mattingly is as committed to it as Torre was -- but Mattingly has spent the past 2½ seasons building relationships with some often-headstrong personalities like Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, so he comes to the job with considerable cachet already in place.
But that doesn't mean Mattingly's job will be easier than Torre's. Far from it. This is a team with a lot of holes and a lot of question marks, not the least of which is what kind of manager he will be. It is a question he can finally begin answering Wednesday.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.