Dodgers manager Don Mattingly spent the 2014 season walking a tightrope. Working in the final year of his original three-year deal, he almost got the axe when the team stumbled early, then nearly left on his own accord in the immediate aftermath of their elimination from the National League Championship Series, when his option for 2014 was picked up without further commitment. Now he finally has the job security he sought; ESPN's Ramona Shelburne reported on Tuesday that Mattingly and the Dodgers have reached an agreement on a three-year extension covering 2014-2016 — a deal that's months overdue.
Mattingly, who had no previous managerial experience when the Dodgers hired him to succeed Joe Torre following the 2010 season, has shown his flaws as an in-game tactician, particularly when it comes to lineup construction. In 2012, the Dodgers received just a .226/.281/.302 performance from their leadoff hitters, for the second-worst OPS in the league from that spot, and the worst in terms of combined peeformance (.237/.304/.322) from their 1-2 hitters. Light-hitting Mark Ellis was a significant part of that problem, yet Mattingly persisted in using him in the number two spot in the order in 2013. Furthermore, he's shown a tendency to take the Dodgers out of big innings via the overuse of bunting; even as the Dodgers won their first postseason series since 2009 by beating the Braves in the Division Series, Juan Uribe's series-clinching homer followed two unsuccessful attempts to bunt. During the postseason, he fell into traps that suggested an inability to think more than one move ahead, as opposing managers neutralized his moves.
Despite his tactical flaws, Mattingly has gotten high marks in terms of his ability to handle an increasingly star-studded clubhouse, and to keep a struggling team from throwing in the towel. He has now guided the Dodgers to three consecutive winning seasons, their first such stretch since 2002-2004, not only compiling a .536 winning percentage but overseeing improvement each year, from 82 wins in 2011 (up from 80 in Torre's dismal final season) to 86 in 2012 to 92 in 2013, and from third to second to first in the NL West. Battered by injuries early on, the 2013 team stumbled to a 30-42 start, one that put Mattingly's job in jeopardy, but he weathered the storm and the team reeled off a 42-8 stretch that enabled them to win the division by 11 games, the majors' largest margin. In their first playoff appearance since 2009, the Dodgers then beat the Braves in the Division Series before falling to the Cardinals in the NLCS.
Three days after the Dodgers' elimination, Mattingly sat next to general manager Ned Colletti at a press conference and expressed frustration that his option had not been picked up prior to automatically vesting with the team's NLDS win. He didn't guarantee his return at that point, telling reporters:
"It’s been a frustrating, tough year honestly. Because I think when you … come in basically as a lame duck and with the ($230-million) payroll and the guys that you have, it puts you in a tough spot in the clubhouse.
...I like being here, but I don’t want to be anywhere you’re not wanted.”
Two days later, club president Stan Kasten, who had yet to weigh in prior to that press conference, publicly expressed his support for Mattingly. He didn't address the manager's criticism of the process, but did voice regret over the interpretation of his (in)actions, telling reporters, "I've always thought that [he was coming back next year]. I've never had any doubt about that."
Meanwhile, Mattingly's agent stressed that his client would honor his contract, but the Dodgers did get in an additional dig by not renewing the contract of bench coach Trey Hillman, said to be Mattingly's closest friend on the team. Since then, the Dodgers shifted third base coach and frequent managerial candidate Tim Wallach to the bench coach role, which could not only provide Mattingly with a new source of input as far as tactics and strategy are concerned (not that Wallach was prohibited from doing so prior) but help to shape the team's thoughts about Wallach as a potential successor should the need for change arise.
For all of that, it has taken more than two months for the Dodgers to reach an agreement with the manager on an extension. It might make sense if the team had been as busy as, say, the Yankees in terms of their offseason business, signing multiple marquee free agents, but Colletti's moves have centered around retaining Uribe and relievers Brian Wilson and J.P. Howell while adding Chris Perez and Jamey Wright to the mix; their highest profile move has been the signing of Dan Haren to a one-year deal. Admittedly, that's still a fair volume of moves, and with the holidays, finding time to hash out the details with Mattingly and his agent may not have been easy.
The larger point is that much of the ensuing drama could have been avoided had the Dodgers rewarded Mattingly in-season. At the very least, instead of waiting for the automatic triggering of his option, they could have picked it up in the wake of that 42-8 run, or upon the team's clinching of a playoff spot. At that point, they would have looked modestly magnanimous while making it clear to both Mattingly and his players that they expected the manager to return, and that any details — including an extension — could have been hashed out later. For a team that's spending a near-record level of money on players, the extra $1.4 million it might have cost them had they picked up the option and then suddenly reversed course by scapegoating the skipper in the wake of a quick postseason exit would have been a small price to pay. That would have been embarrassing, but then so was the path the Dodgers pursued by failing to communicate their intentions to Mattingly and letting him twist in the wind. In the end, though, they've retained a manager under whom they've had some success, one who has his strengths and his weaknesses, and who — like players under him such as Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp — remains a work in progress.