Mattingly has a lot on his mind as camp nears
Batting order, defense, bounce-back years among top concerns
LOS ANGELES -- Pitchers and catchers report next week, but Don Mattingly can't wait. He reports to Arizona this week, pondering batting orders, platoon partners and how to keep aging infielders healthy.
About to embark on his first Spring Training as Dodgers manager after taking over from mentor Joe Torre, Mattingly said he's confident Matt Kemp and Jonathan Broxton can return to their 2009 form. He'll deploy a modified platoon at catcher and in left field, but he hasn't decided on a batting order because he's not sure who will bat second. Admittedly, there isn't an obvious choice for that slot, but among the considerations is third baseman Casey Blake.
However, with Blake now 37 and leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal injury prone, Mattingly implied that the batting order could be a daily shuffle, influenced by structured days off for Blake and Furcal, as well as the anticipated platoons at catcher and in left field.
"I've thought about it, and I want to keep thinking about it," Mattingly said of the batting order. "It's something we'll probably play around with at Spring Training. There are two problems. We want to make sure we keep Raffy strong, that's number one. So I want to have a regular plan of rest and I want to stick to it, good or bad. The hard part is when he's going good you have this 'We need Raffy in there' thing and you push him even further. Look at his numbers after he was hurt and they weren't great. I've been through the back [injuries]. We have to keep him rested so he never gets to that point.
"And in a perfect world, you'd like to leave Andre and Matt in a stable position [third and fourth] and not mess with them in the order. But you want protection for Matt. It could be Juan Uribe, it could be James Loney. Uribe has done about everything. He's led off, he's hit second, he's the kind of hitter you can tinker with. Blake is an interesting guy in the two-hole. He hits the other way, he can take a pitch and with Raffy in there, he gives us a lefty-righty at the top against right-handers. Jamey Carroll, when he plays, can hit in either spot. If [Tony] Gwynn is in the lineup, he could be up there."
General manager Ned Colletti has fortified the pitching staff and taken Uribe from the World Series champion Giants to start at second base. But Manny Ramirez and Russell Martin, who opened the season a year ago in left field and catcher, are gone. Left field is now a platoon ("But not a strict one," said Mattingly) of Marcus Thames and Jay Gibbons. Rod Barajas is the primary catcher, but Dioner Navarro will be given a chance to compete for playing time.
"We'll look at the matchups, because Marcus might be better against certain right-handers and Gibbons showed he hits lefties good," said Mattingly.
He said he will insist on better defense throughout the club, particularly Kemp and Ethier. Before Thames was acquired, there was talk of putting Gwynn in center, moving Kemp to right and Ethier to left, all because management was disappointed in the outfield play of Kemp and Ethier last year. Gwynn now figures to be primarily a late-inning defender in left field, unless his offense improves.
"We want to put our best defense out there," said Mattingly. "I've talked to Matt and Andre. For the most part, I don't like moving everybody around. If everybody is playing defense the way they're supposed to play, they'll stay in their spots. But the defense has got to get better in the outfield. Not just Matt, but Andre also. Better positioning on counts, better jumps, paying better attention to the situations and the tendencies of the runners. We've got to get better defensively."
Defense wasn't Kemp's only problem. Although he set a career-best with 28 homers, his average dropped nearly 50 points, he was called out by Colletti for his defense, benched by Torre for not hustling and resisting coaching, and became a tabloid focal point for his since-ended relationship with superstar singer Rihanna."Over the winter Matt and I have talked a lot about the stuff that went on," said Mattingly. "He needs to be better and he knows it. It was a tough year for him and he doesn't want to repeat that. We want him to turn the page. He did struggle. But he also hit 28 homers. It's still positive for him. I look for a bounce-back year, where he puts his whole game back together. For example, the stolen bases have got to get better. But I played with Rickey Henderson. These guys play hard every game and they don't get time off to recharge.
"Matt is capable of so much -- power, average, defense, speed -- it's all there and that's part of his curse. We all expect so much. So does he. We weren't satisfied, neither was he."
Mattingly reiterated support for Broxton as closer, even though he lost the job to Hong-Chih Kuo last August.
"For me, that was a blip on the radar," Mattingly said of Broxton's late collapse. "He's been solid his whole career until he had a bad second half. He also was an All-Star. But in the second half, it became a snowball and he wasn't able to stop it. But that goes for a lot of guys on the team in the second half, they weren't able to stop it either. We've talked and he's in good spirits. [Pitching coach Rick] Honeycutt has talked to him and we're all convinced he's ready to go and get back to what he was."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.