Senior Writer

Dodgers camp report: It's exam time for Mattingly


PHOENIX -- The first thing Don Mattingly needed was a Life Saver.

Yeah, because managing a major-league team is a lot tougher than it looks. A lot tougher on your throat, with all the talking you do.

"Now I know why Joe [Torre] always had a mint in his mouth," Mattingly said this week, as he went through one more media session, before one more meeting with his coaches.

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He's learning.

The Dodgers are hoping the learning curve won't be too steep. They're hoping that there won't be any missteps. Mattingly had two notable ones last year -- once when he was forced to remove a pitcher when he didn't want to in a game with the Dodgers against the Giants, and another when he ran out of pitchers in an Arizona Fall League.

But they also believe fully that they've got the right guy in charge.

"As I watched him as a coach, it became apparent he would be a great manager," general manager Ned Colletti said. "I think if you liked him as a player, respected him as a player, you're going to see the same thing as a manager.

"Every week, he gets better at this."

It's hard to know yet exactly what that means, and harder still to know how it will affect a Dodger team that went to the National League Championship Series two years in a row, then slipped back under .500 in 2010. And certainly the Dodgers' chances in 2011 are much more dependent on the maturation and performance of guys like Ethier, Kemp, Kershaw and Billingsley than on the performance of a guy named Mattingly.

But you could also argue that -- nationally if not locally -- the manager is a bigger name than any of the guys who play for him. And because of that, the biggest question most people around the country will have about the Dodgers is how Don Mattingly will do.

Already, we know that he's not going to be a carbon copy of Torre, the man whom he coached under for four years with the Yankees and then the past three with the Dodgers, the man who groomed him for this job, basically the man who gave him this job.

When Torre came to the Dodgers after the 2007 season, he told them he only wanted to manage for another two or three seasons. They told him that in the interests of continuity, they'd then want to have his successor on the coaching staff.

Mattingly was the choice.

The Dodgers got the continuity they were looking for. Much of the coaching staff remained the same this year, and Mattingly is such a familiar face and voice to the players that in some ways it feels like there's been no change at all.

"Guys here have gone through three changes," said Andre Ethier, who saw the Dodgers go from Jim Tracy to Grady Little to Torre and now Mattingly. "This one is the easiest. Donnie's been here."

But Mattingly isn't just a younger version of Torre.

Fantasy Writer

Sleeper ... Rafael Furcal: Furcal is certainly a playing-time risk, as he has failed to appear in more than 100 games in two of the last three seasons. He has been dogged by back and hamstring injuries, but he is heading into the 2011 campaign healthy and rested. He still has good power for a shortstop and can still provide Fantasy owners with 20 or more steals. Ultimately, other middle-of-the-pack options, such as Yunel Escobar and Starlin Castro, may be better bets to stay healthy, but few can offer the speed-power combination that Furcal can.

Bust ... Jonathan Broxton: A year ago, Broxton was coming off a sensational season that gave him the appearance of being an elite closer. In retrospect, 2009 was more of an aberration than a breakout for him. Last year, he didn't sustain the large spikes in velocity and strikeout rate that he enjoyed the year before, and he went back to being very hittable on balls in play. While his .375 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) should recede somewhat, Broxton could still be a liability in the WHIP category, even though he will likely strike out more than a batter per inning. With Hong-Chih Kuo and Kenley Jansen looming as ninth-inning options, Broxton will be treading on thin ice.

Bounce-back player ... Matt Kemp: Over his first two full seasons, Kemp established himself as a player on the rise, holding his batting average and stolen base total steady while increasing his power. Last year, the power continued to increase, but that was overshadowed by huge hits to his average and steals. Kemp is still only 26, just old enough to be entering the peak of his career. It's not unusual for a young player to take a step back before plateauing into his best years. There is no reason to think that Kemp will repeat or do worse than his 2010 performance and 2011 provides owners with a great buy-low opportunity.

-- Al Melchior
Dodgers outlook | Depth Chart | 2011 Draft Prep

Torre, especially in the later Dodger years, was not all that close with his players. His coaches often were go-betweens, sometimes for better, often for worse.

If Mattingly already has a strength as a manager, it's his ability to relate to players one-on-one. Almost everyone in the Dodger clubhouse already knows him, and almost everyone raves about his ability to communicate.

And players who came to the Dodgers from outside the organization heard from others who knew Mattingly.

"You only hear positive things," said Ted Lilly, acquired from the Cubs at last year's July 31 deadline and re-signed as a free agent. "I would certainly question the person that doesn't [say that]."

Understandably, given his previous role as hitting coach, Mattingly has a closer relationship with the Dodger hitters than with the pitchers. But even that relationship will necessarily change somewhat in his new role.

"They think they know me," Mattingly said. "They know me as a coach. As a coach, you're different."

It was Torre's team, and if there was a problem, it was Torre's job to make sure it was resolved. Now, it's Mattingly's job, and there are those who wonder if he's ready to show the toughness a manager needs.

There's that image of him, of course, the image of a totally professional player, but one who was more laid-back than fiery.

When a reporter asked him this week if players think he's more laid-back than he actually is, Mattingly smiled and said, "Probably."

He knows that they'll be watching him this spring, and he knows they'll be listening to him. He spent hours thinking about his first team meeting, the address he planned to give before Tuesday's first full-squad workout.

"I want them to know the way I think, and what I think about playing the game," he said, a couple of days before the meeting. "That meeting, I hope, is a solid beginning."

That meeting, of course, is only one more time he's going to stand in front of a group of guys and start talking. Managers do a lot of that, a lot more than players or coaches.

Managers need a Life Saver sometimes.

Don Mattingly has already got that part of the job figured out.


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