7/3/2013 1:33 P.M. ET
Crowded outfield is Mattingly's latest challenge
With Crawford set to return from DL, Dodgers have four men for three spots
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
LOS ANGELES -- Dodgers manager Don Mattingly offered a warm greeting this weekend and a big smile. He's standing tall and so are the Dodgers.
"I'm still here, hanging in there," Mattingly said.
As the Dodgers' world turns, Mattingly weathered a first half of the season during which his club was plagued by injuries and subpar performances, leading to some unfortunate calls for his head from a few members of the national and local media.
But that was a month ago. With Cuban rookie Yasiel Puig playing up a storm and Hanley Ramirez looking like the force he once was following his latest return from the disabled list, the Dodgers have a totally different dynamic. They also are fortunate to be playing in the National League West. Despite a record at four games under .500, L.A. is just 2 1/2 games out in the division race as the All-Star break approaches.
Despite season-ending injuries to key members of their starting rotation -- Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsly -- the Dodgers know anything can happen in the second half of the long baseball season.
"We've gotten through all that," Mattingly said about a club that, with Tuesday night's 8-0 win at Colorado, has won nine of its past 10, making up seven games on the first-place D-backs in the process. "Now, the idea is to win every series: two out of three, two out of three, two out of three."
The Dodgers, with their $216 million payroll, have an embarrassment of riches. And just as Mattingly has brought them through this period, he's already facing the challenge of the next one.
Barring a setback, when Carl Crawford returns later this week from a left hamstring injury, Mattingly said he's already mulling how to juggle four starting outfielders earning a combined $58.3 million -- about one-fourth of the team's player payroll.
Puig, who set an NL rookie record by banging out 44 hits in June -- his first big league calendar month -- has earned the right to play, Mattingly said. Puig continued that onslaught with a homer on Tuesday night, his eighth in 27 games. Puig's an adventure in right field, punting a ball into the stands on Saturday night against the Phillies for a unique ground-rule double, and he's run into too many outs at second trying to stretch a single into a double.
But he's a powerhouse at the plate. And like Oakland left fielder and fellow countryman Yoenis Cespedes, Puig makes his club a much better team. And that's no fluke. The A's usually struggle when Cespedes is out of the lineup for any prolonged period, and Mattingly is hoping not to test that equation with Puig and the Dodgers.
Obviously, there's no designated hitter in the NL, so that leaves Crawford, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier to play musical chairs with the other two outfield positions. And right now, Mattingly said, he's not playing any favorites. The music will stop based on matchups and when the manager deems it fit to give Kemp and Crawford a breather.
After all, hamstrings seem to be the injury du jour for the Dodgers' position players. Crawford, Ramirez and Kemp have all spent significant time on the DL nursing them. Kemp, a right-handed hitter, is batting .231 vs. right-handed pitching. Ethier, a lefty swinger, is hitting .238 against left-handers. Ethier proved that he could ably play center field in Kemp's absence.
"I'm just going to match up the best I can, give guys a break now and then," Mattingly said. "I'm just going to put the best lineup out there. At this point, it's going to be competitive. For me, I don't think at this point we can afford to say we're going to be nice to everybody and everybody gets equal playing time. It's not Spring Training. It's the season. I'm going to do the best I can with it."
Crawford has played better than the Dodgers could have anticipated, appearing in 51 games and batting .301 before the latest injury. Coming off elbow surgery this past year when he played in just 31 games for the Red Sox, the Dodgers had to take the left fielder and his salary in the trade last August so they could acquire first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from Boston. Crawford is earning nearly $21 million this season, and the Dodgers have to pay him a similar amount each year through 2017.
Ethier, who is making $13.5 million and also has a guaranteed contract worth another $70.5 million through 2017, has been durable this season, playing in 79 games, but he's underperformed with a .256 batting average, only five homers and 25 RBIs.
Kemp has been the greatest enigma. He has missed a good portion of the past two seasons because of three hamstring strains and a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. He's earning $20.25 million this season, and the Dodgers have committed to pay him a little more than $21 million a year through 2018.
In April 2012, Kemp, coming off a near NL MVP Award season, hit .417 with 12 homers and 25 RBIs. By the middle of May, he had begun to cool off, and then the first hamstring injury hit. Kemp hasn't been the same since. Last September, he injured his shoulder crashing into the center-field fence. Consequently, since this past Sept. 2, Kemp has hit seven homers and had 34 RBIs, including two home runs and 20 RBIs this season in 58 games.
This is what Mattingly is juggling: the results of the past with the hope that it all will change quickly in the immediate future. Add to that the precarious predilection of Kemp and Crawford to injury.
"I don't want anyone to have a relapse," Mattingly said. "As far as Carl is concerned, the days off seem to benefit him when we give him a few here and there. Matt in the past has really been a day-in, day-out grinder type. But he has had three [hamstring injuries] within a year, so we do have to be a little bit more careful with him and mindful.
"I'd like to say there's going to be enough playing time, because there's never enough for certain guys. But I think we're going to play guys fairly regular."
It's another challenge in a season of challenges for Mattingly, as the Dodgers' world continues to turn.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.