Dodgers are clearly Mattingly's team now
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It is as if the era has passed. Oh, the sale of the Dodgers is still forthcoming and there are lawsuits to be settled, but the sense around one of the game's greatest franchises is completely different. "We've moved on from the past," said Matt Kemp. "It's all about the future, and I could not be happier about being a Dodger for the next eight years."
Whoever becomes the new owners will find that, by the time this Spring Training was half-over, it was eminently clear that they had gone from Frank McCourt's Dodgers to Donnie Baseball's Dodgers. Don Mattingly played all of his 1,785 games for another legendary franchise across country and leagues, but last season, his first as a manager when the Dodgers went from last place on July 7 to third place at season's end with a 45-28 finish, it became his team.
"It's all about trust, and Donnie embodies everything that goes into the word," said Andre Ethier. Added Kemp: "I cannot overstate the trust the players on this team have in Don Mattingly. That may be the most important thing a manager has to have."
Kemp, perhaps more than anyone, knows. In 2010, he was second-guessed and criticized by some around the team for lack of focus, for baserunning and defensive gaffes, and finished the season hitting .249."Mattingly had been a big part of my development [as hitting coach under Joe Torre]," says Kemp. "Then when he took over, I knew exactly what he would be like." Kemp reported early to last spring training to work with Davey Lopes on his baserunning. And as the season unfurled, at the age of 26, Kemp emerged as the best player in the game, leading the league in homers (39), RBIs, OPS and total bases, while stealing 40 bases and winning a Gold Glove.
When Kemp got to this spring training, Mattingly told him, "the best teams work when the best player plays the hardest every day. It's why the Yankees are what they are -- because Derek Jeter always plays hard and establishes the team's identity. You should be for the Dodgers what Jeter is to the Yankees."
"It was an honor," Kemp says. "It told me what he thinks of me, and set a goal as to what I want to be. I want to help the Dodgers be a great franchise." Once again.
As a Yankee, Mattingly was ever the optimist, positive about everything and everyone. He believes this team that scored two or fewer runs in 62 games and three runs in 20 others will be better offensively with Dee Gordon leading off and Ethier, healthy after knee surgery and rehab, hitting behind Kemp. "This is an interesting division, very even but flawed," said one opposing manager. "But start with this: The Dodgers have the two best players in the division in Kemp and (Cy Young Award winner) Clayton Kershaw. That's a good place to start."
Oh yes. And instead of having to choke payroll and try to move contracts in July -- which has had Ned Colletti handcuffed for years -- it is expected that the new ownership will allow Colletti to take on contracts as it restores the confidence of the Dodger fan, while fighting for the market share against the Angels, and for the division against the Diamondbacks, Giants, Rockies and Padres. "None of us knows what's going on (regarding ownership)," said one coach. "But it's like a black cloud is being lifted and the Dodgers are about to become the Dodgers again."
There is a way to go. The D-backs have tremendous pitching depth, with three big arms being readied in the Minor Leagues. The Giants have the great pitching and have added depth to their lineup, and will likely be co-favorites with Arizona as long as Brian Wilson is healthy. The Rockies stumbled last season, but if the pitching holds up, they will be very dangerous.
The 23-year old Gordon has been the talk of Arizona, with teammates, coaches, scouts and opposing pitching coaches throwing out predictions of 60-to-80 stolen bases. The question is going to be how consistently Gordon gets on base, although he did have 65 hits and 34 runs in 56 games as a rookie, and had a .345 on-base percentage in 34 games after the All-Star break. "He can be a star," said Mattingly, who, like Lopes and hitting coach Dave Hansen, are blown away by the work ethic of this skinny, respectful kid who answers "sir" to almost every question.
"His ability to bunt can change everything," says Colletti. Last weekend against Cleveland, Gordon led off the bottom of first against Derek Lowe by leaning back on a pitch up and in, laying down a perfect bunt down the third-base line and beating it out in 3.79 seconds to first -- from a flatfooted, not running start. Two days later against the White Sox, down a run in the seventh inning, he beat out a bunt, stole second, went to third on an errant throw and scored the tying run that eventually led to a 4-3 win.
"I just love the game, and I love working at it," says Gordon, who has the work ethic of his father Tom. When Gordon was in high school in Avon Park, Fla., he was better known for his basketball, so good a combo guard that he was offered a scholarship by Rick Pitino and Louisville. Academics were an issue, so he went to junior college, and even though he didn't play his sophomore year, he was drafted in the fourth round in that 2008 Draft. "I think he may be the fastest player in the game right now," said one NL scout. "It's not just speed. It's speed and quickness."
Colletti signed Mark Ellis -- coming off two lesser seasons -- to handle the two-hole between Gordon and Kemp. Ethier, healthy again, has had a big spring, then Mattingly has to hope James Loney's strong second half is a return to his promise (as opposed to a .778 career OPS at first base), that Juan Rivera approximates his production after his acquisition and that A.J. Ellis handles the catching. They were ninth in the NL in runs, 8th in OBP, 12th in slugging ... but they also play more than half their games in Dodger Stadium, Pac Bell Park and Petco Park, and figure Gordon, Ethier and Loney will be better.
Their starting pitchers were fourth in the league in quality starts and fifth in ERA. Kershaw, at 24, is a star. Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly return. Colletti signed Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang, the 1998 Cotuit Kettleer rotation mates who were 25-19 and threw 351 2/3 innings last season with the Mets and Padres, for experience at the end. he two veterans also provide time for the heralded Nathan Eovaldi to get ready in Triple-A and touted prospects like Zach Lee and Allen Webster move through the system. "We have," said Mattingly, "some great arms coming." One of which might get them a bigtime positional player come midseason.
There are two big keys. One is Billingsley, who in 2007-2008 was 28-15 with a 3.21 ERA, but the last three years has been 35-33 with a 3.94 ERA. The second is the very young back end of the bullpen; Javy Guerra saved 21 of 23 opportunities and Kenley Jansen got swings and misses on 35.3 percent of his pitches, a percentage topped only by the Braves' Craig Kimbrel. Josh Lindblom may be an answer. Maybe Chris Withrow.
Those answers come as the season evolves, and the new Dodgers ownership tries to win back the trust of the Los Angeles fans. The new owners should realize that they are taking over a franchise that, yes, has been smudged, but that Donnie Baseball has restored. These Dodgers have the best player in baseball, one of the (if not the) best pitchers, an All-Star right fielder and an electric shortstop -- all in their prime, all playing in an atmosphere where Kemp says, "trust is king."
Donnie Baseball Trust.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.