In Which Big Market Would Don Mattingly Thrive?

MLB NewsDon Mattingly has been the Los Angeles Dodgers manager since 2011 and is in the final year of his contract. Though the Dodgers have an option year on his deal, he has reportedly asked for it not to be picked up, leaving him with no deal by the end of 2013. The former Yankee great has had mixed reviews during his tenure in baseball’s second biggest market. In 2011, Mattingly took over for other Yankee great, Joe Torre, who left the helm to take a job with the MLB front office. Mattingly, with very little expectations from fans, media and ownership, kept a team lacking talent and considered a joke, together, and made them mediocre, more or less a .500 team.

At the very least it brought praise to a managing career with no real prior experience outside of hitting and bench coach roles in the Big Apple, and drew the support of a quiet but large Dodger fan base. Of course, we know what happened next.

The end of 2011 brought a trade for Hanley Ramirez from the Marlins and last season Los Angeles, under new ownership and demanding a return of fans and new expectations, made the blockbuster deal with Boston to bring: Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to Dodger Town. Los Angeles, despite a red hot start, didn’t gel with the new names well enough and fell short of not only the division (won by the eventual world champion Giants), but making the playoffs altogether.

The new regime didn’t stop there and added Zack Greinke, Korean import, Hyun-Jin Ryu and some other smaller pieces this off season. Now with a renewed rivalry with the Giants (who have won two of the past three championships), a league-leading payroll well over $200 million and enough star power to sell out a stadium every night, Mattingly faces unprecedented expectations and he’s already on the hot seat after failing to make noise last season.

Expect Mattingly’s dismissal from LA if the Dodgers don’t make a run this year and to many it would only be a fair reaction. It’s pretty clear the Dodger’s Front Office is about appearance and there are plenty of higher profile managers with more distinguished resumes than “Donny Baseball” should he not deliver. Even Mattingly acknowledges it, saying, “If I don’t get my guys to play well, it’s on me, it’s my fault.”

Of course, Mattingly’s shortcomings are less about his personality (there have been little to no reports of players ever having an issue with him) and leadership (keeping the clubhouse together through the ownership turmoil in 2011 and the trade acquisitions in 2012) and more about his strategy. Critics will tell you he orders bunts too often, his lineups tend to make no sense sometimes and he doesn’t know how to get the best out of his players.

Mattingly is in the final year of his contract. The Dodgers declined a request by Mattingly for the club to exercise its one- year option. When asked Mattingly replied,  “I’ve played many years on a one-year contract, so I’m good, but the one area you have to deal with is the questions you’re asking me now,” Mattingly said.

Enter: the New York Yankees.

Mattingly spent his entire playing career in pinstripes and broke into coaching in New York as the Joe Torre reign was coming to a close. Many fans and media alike assumed Mattingly was being groomed to take over for Torre when he was offered the role of hitting coach and for one season, bench coach. Of course, when Torre “resigned” and Joe Girardi took over, the former skipper took Mattingly to LA where he spent three more years thriving as the hitting coach before taking his manager’s place.

Joe Girardi, often criticized for his devotion to statistics, lack of small ball and sometimes his leadership, is in a walk year himself. After being unceremoniously ousted in a four game sweep at the hands of the Tigers last year, the city always full of World Series expectations will go to battle with what is a quickly transitioning roster in 2013. There is as good of a chance in New York as there was in 2008 of the Yankees failing to make the postseason, let alone the World Series and it may take at least a spirited ALCS battle for Girardi to keep his job.

The 2012 Yankees were full of one-dimensional hitters who failed to deliver basic fundamentals and do the little things to win close games. Kevin Long, long considered a hitting guru, has started to face some criticism for turning guys like Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira into pull-happy home run robots instead of the balanced hitters they came over being labeled as. Girardi, to date, has supported the idea of relying on lefty power hitters to provide scoring, failing to realize how that may not transition into October when pitching is elite and home runs are no longer plentiful.

If the Yankees face a similarly unsuccessful season like the Dodgers, it’s possible the two biggest markets with the two highest payrolls may be involved in deciding Don Mattingly’s fate for 2014. You can bet if the Yankees fail due to a heavily scrutinized, old, roster in the face of trying to reach a self imposed salary cap with a bunch of expiring contracts, the Steinbrenners will have to get creative to keep fans from rioting, or worse, becoming indifferent.

If a few prospects turn their fates around and stay healthy, it could mean Girardi’s dismissal, the hiring of Mattingly (who many felt should have been the guy all along) to appease the fan base, and giving the former Yankee a platform to prove he can be successful in a big market without having to do it in Los Angeles where he may have never been given enough time or a fair shake to begin with.

It’s a realistic possibility Don Mattingly may be a Yankee again in 2014 and for better or worse will be responsible for leading the team somewhere he never went himself as a player.

Back to the World Series.