Commentary

Don Mattingly's desperate plea

The Dodgers' manager is hoping his public shaming of his club will pay off

Updated: May 28, 2013, 9:26 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

The words came tumbling out of the manager's mouth nearly a week ago. By now, it's possible you might have many of them memorized.

"Grit" would be one. "Fight" would be another. Then there's the money quote from Mr. Donald A. Mattingly, on his Los Angeles Dodgers of Chavez Ravine:

"It's not just putting an all-star team out there and the all-star team wins," he orated, as America hung on every syllable.

Now it isn't exactly true that we've heard those words more than "four score and seven years ago." But it feels like it sometimes. Especially, I'd bet, for those of you out there who live in the greater L.A. metropolitan traffic snafu.

Here, however, is another portion of Don Mattingly's blunt assessment of the Dodgers last week that you may not have heard, believe it or not. Read these words carefully. See what you make of them:

"There's a touch of a difference between saying you're giving your best effort and you're willing to fight for something," MLB.com quoted Mattingly as saying last Wednesday. "Some guys go to another level for that price, will do whatever it takes to win a game. There's something there you can't measure with sabermetrics."

[+] EnlargeDodgers' Don Mattingly
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsMattingly needs his team to start playing up to its lofty payroll.

Interesting little quote, don't you think?

Since those words were spoken, the Dodgers have won three times in five games, heading into their big Freeway Series showdown Tuesday night against the Angels, on the ESPN television network. That's what you call an improvement for a team that had won just five of its previous 18 games before the manager opened his mouth.

And the Dodgers actually won two of those games after their opponent scored first. That's what you'd call a seriously humongous improvement -- considering that before this, they'd won three games all year (3-14) when that happened.

On Monday night, they had their most epic evening of 2013: They fell into a 6-1 canyon against the hottest team in baseball (i.e. the Mike Trouts) -- and still roared from five runs back to win, equaling their biggest comeback in their past 1,200 games.

So that, obviously, is what the manager had in mind. And obviously, it's what his front office had in mind when it encouraged him to be more assertive.

Tough enough?

But the pivotal question, five games into the Don Mattingly Assertiveness era, remains: Is this what the Dodgers are? Is it what they have a chance to be? Is there a toughness there, a competitive flame, that just needed to be ignited?

I've posed that question to two longtime NL executives and a veteran scout over the past few days. Let's just say all of them have their doubts.

"They're too cool for school," one of them said. "They're not a TEAM team, if you know what I mean. They're not like the Giants. Now that's a team."

One exec said of the Dodgers: "The stars on that team, none of them look like they want to make a difference. They're kind of like, Let's put our eight hours in and go home."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, sums up the plight the Dodgers find themselves in these days:

They're built -- and advertised -- as a team of stars. But do their stars have what it takes to do the heavy lifting that stars are paid to do?

It's a fascinating question. And the answer will go a long way toward determining the future of this franchise, and the folks who run it.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireNo one doubts the competitive fire of Clayton Kershaw.

Clayton Kershaw? No doubts there. If he isn't the best pitcher in the game, there isn't a top-three list on the planet that wouldn't include him. And he proved how tough he is last September, when he pitched through a hip issue that would have ended the season of half the pitchers in baseball.

Zack Greinke? He may not be wired quite like anyone you've ever run across, I'm guessing. And he's coming off a rough night at the office Monday (10 hits and six runs in four innings). But the guy did make it back from a broken collarbone in 34 days. So if this is about toughness, I think it's safe to say he'd pass that test.

But pitchers can do only so much to keep any team's engines churning. It's really the position players in this group who make most baseball people wonder.

"In baseball," said one NL executive, "it takes a good mix. You need stars. But you've also got to have grinders. It takes a mix. And they don't have that. You have to have some players who are tough. And their toughness comes from guys who don't carry a lot of weight in the clubhouse. Guys like [Nick] Punto and [Mark] Ellis and [Skip] Schumaker, they're playing as hard as they can play. But they have to lead by example only. They can't go over to the big guys and say, 'What the [heck]?'"

Does Andre Ethier have that toughness? The manager seemed to single him out last week, in a way that suggested that if he has it, he hasn't shown it.

Does Hanley Ramirez have it? He hasn't been healthy enough to find out. But we definitely know how the Marlins would answer that question.

Does Adrian Gonzalez have it? Well, it's hard to quibble with how he's played. He's hitting .337/.395/.515. He's reached base 12 times in his past 14 trips to the plate. And the only first basemen in the league with a higher OPS than he has (.910) are Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt. But in terms of temperament, "he's no energizer," said one scout. "That's for sure."

Then there's Carl Crawford. At .308/.369/.467, with 16 extra-base hits and 30 runs scored in his first 46 games, he's back to "playing like Carl Crawford again," said the same scout. But the one thing we learned about him in his time in Boston was: He isn't interested in being The Man, even when he's happy, healthy and playing the way he can.

The Kemp problem

So that brings us to Matt Kemp, a guy who is supposed to be the face of this franchise.

I watched a lot of the Dodgers game Monday. Within a span of five minutes during that telecast, I got to hear a commercial that billed Kemp as a "perennial MVP candidate" -- and hear Vin Scully refer to Kemp as "lost" after he'd whiffed on a breaking ball in the dirt, on the way to a Golden Sombrero. All in the same half-inning. Beautiful.

In April 2012, Kemp hit 12 home runs in 84 at-bats, slugged .893 and had a 1.383 OPS. He's hit 13 homers since, in 513 at-bats, with a .404 slugging percentage and a .727 OPS. He ranks 179th in the big leagues in slugging since the end of that magical April, among players with at least 300 plate appearances.

[+] EnlargeKemp
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsMatt Kemp just hasn't been the same player since hurting his shoulder last year.

And since he slammed into the fence in Denver last Aug. 28 and hurt his shoulder, he's hit .238/.290/.366, which is not an unrelated development.

"Just watching him, I think his shoulder is killing him," said one NL exec. "Look at his swings. He has a completely different swing than he had at the beginning of last year. Last year, he hit balls to right-center field as hard as a human being could hit them. Now, his front shoulder won't allow him to stay on those balls away and drive them like he used to."

When he's playing the way he's playing now, Kemp has body language that sends mixed signals, the kind that inspired one scout to question whether his "concentration is all there for three hours straight."

But those who go back further with him have a different view.

"I think Kemp is a misread player when he's caught up in this type of stuff," said one exec. "When he's put in the right situation, I think he becomes a monster type of player, and I mean that in a good way. I just don't know that he's got the right guys around him right now."

But remember, this is a team that didn't have the luxury of building methodically to find just the right cast. The GM, Ned Colletti, spent three years in survival mode under the McCourt Divorce Court Chapter 11 era. Then he spent the next six months trying to live up to an ownership mandate to slap together as much high-priced talent as he could assemble on the fly to make his franchise relevant again.

So this, for better or worse, is what the Dodgers are. What they had no choice to become. And what they're going to have to live with, for at least the next couple of months.

Their best-case scenario is: They have a much healthier second half than first half. And they find their manager has lit just the right fuse, demanded just enough fire and accountability to motivate them to climb out of what is still far from a hopeless hole: 7½ games out of first with 113 left to play.

But their worst-case scenario is: It turns out these parts just don't fit. Their bullpen and defense don't allow them to make a run. And their stars just don't get the memo -- and allow this season to drift into the annals of legendary $217 million debacles.

No matter which it is, Don Mattingly doesn't deserve to have his managerial fate riding on the outcome. But that's how it works, and always has. This is his team. And no matter how much TV money is about to flow through the coffers, it's a little late to find him a whole new team to bail him out of this mess.

So let's just sit back and watch them all barrel down the freeway, because "they're at the point of no return," said one NL exec. "They can't go back. And they know it."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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