Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier struggled to find his offensive rhythm… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Dallas — Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said he went into the winter hopeful the team could sign Prince Fielder.
But with departing owner Frank McCourt reducing their off-season budget, plans of pursuing an impact hitter were abandoned. And as of the second day of baseball's winter meetings, the team looked strikingly similar to the team that finished 11½ games out of first place in the National League West in 2011.
Only instead of Jamey Carroll, they have Mark Ellis, and instead of Aaron Miles, they have Jerry Hairston Jr. In other words, they exchanged one group of light-hitting supplementary players for another.
"Obviously, we're going to be a little like last year," Mattingly said.
Mattingly continued his long-standing practice of citing the best periods of his more inconsistent players as evidence of the heights his team can reach.
"Our guys that are supposed to drive in runs and do things are going to have to do things," he said.
Mattingly pointed to Andre Ethier. At the end of the season, Mattingly estimated that Ethier had wasted 100 at-bats because of his inability to control his emotions.
"He can't give up that many at-bats," Mattingly said. "He's in the middle of our order. You just can't do it. It's something we have to work on."
A two-time All-Star, Ethier hit only 11 home runs last season, which ended for him with a minor knee operation. He hit 31 home runs in 2009 and 11 home runs in the first 32 games of the next season.
While conceding James Loney is unlikely to replicate what he did over the final month over an entire season — he batted .388 in his final 35 games — Mattingly maintained that the power-deprived first baseman can drive in 90 runs.
On the pitching side, Mattingly said Chad Billingsley's performance could determine whether the rotation is average or something far better than that.
Billingsley, who won 16 games in 2009 and was an All-Star in 2010, was 12-11 last season.
"You would like Bills to step up," Mattingly said. "We don't feel he's a .500 guy. The stuff says he's better than that."
Told that it sounded as if his team had almost no margin for error, Mattingly replied, "For the most part, everybody's in that boat."
The Dodgers will try to minimize their fluctuations in form with a shift in philosophy.
Last winter, the Dodgers signed hitters with power who rarely reached base, including Juan Uribe, who will return next season, and Rod Barajas, who won't.
Resigned to the reality they won't be a high-scoring team, the Dodgers are now emphasizing variety on offense and steady hands on defense.
"What we've tried to do is put pieces together that we can mix and match and match up with different styles of pitching," Mattingly said.
With Juan Rivera re-signed and Jerry Sands expected to start the season on the major league roster, Mattingly said he thinks the team will be more capable against left-handed pitching. The right-handed-hitting Rivera and Sands will be used to provide cover for Ethier and Loney, who each hit about 100 points lower against left-handers than they did against right-handers.
Mattingly said this flexibility would allow the Dodgers to offer increased protection to Matt Kemp, who he said would have to come close to duplicating his MVP-caliber season.
The manager said he was fine with the idea of trading quality for quantity in the rotation. For the money that would have been required to re-sign Hiroki Kuroda, the Dodgers will be able to pay two established starters in Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano. Harang has agreed to a deal that will be finalized upon his completion of a physical examination Wednesday.
"It's stuff you have to do," Mattingly said.