Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly expects the team to improve in 2011, calling… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)
Will the Dodgers be any good this year?
Once the cackling around him subsided, Don Mattingly said they would be, and offered reasons why he thought they would be more competitive than last season, when they were 80-82 and finished fourth in the National League West.
But when asked about specific aspects of what went wrong last season, the rookie manager on more than one occasion tried to sidestep inquiries by stating, "Last year was last year."
Like when he was asked if his stated goal to field a "mentally tough" ballclub implied that he felt the team lacked resilience last season.
Declarations about this being a new year would probably be met with less skepticism had the Dodgers roster undergone significant changes over the winter. But it didn't. Of the 10 free agents they signed, five were on the team last season.
The newcomers: Juan Uribe, Matt Guerrier, Jon Garland, Dioner Navarro and Tony Gwynn Jr.
Addressing reporters for the first time this year Wednesday at Dodger Stadium, Mattingly acknowledged that the 2011 Dodgers look a lot like the 2010 Dodgers.
"We're the same club as we were last year, but we're also the same club we were in '09 and '08 that got into the playoffs and had guys on the rise," Mattingly said. "I think last year was an exception."
In early November, Mattingly stressed the importance of adding a big bat to the middle of the lineup. The closest the Dodgers came to doing that was by signing Uribe, whom Mattingly described Wednesday as a complementary piece.
So Mattingly was back to restating what management was saying around this time last year — that Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and James Loney would have to become the offensive players they were expected to become.
"The guys we have are going to be impact bats," Mattingly said.
Ethier was leading the National League in all three triple-crown categories last season until he suffered a pinkie fracture that derailed his season. Kemp regressed by nearly every statistical measure. Loney drove in only 25 runs after the All-Star break.
"You look at Andre; to me, he has a chance to be one of the best hitters in this game," Mattingly said. "Matt, you feel he had an off year; he still hits 28 homers last year, he drives in 90 runs. James, he had 63 [runs batted in] at the break. These guys are going to have to be our bats."
"The guys we brought in … they're pieces that fit around our core group. Our core group's going to have to play well. When you get right down to it, our guys are going to have to play."
Mattingly said he was pleased with the Dodgers' improved pitching depth — they have six established starters — and was confident closer Jonathan Broxton would recover from an awful second half.
But the Dodgers appear to have become weaker in left field, where they used to have Manny Ramirez and Scott Podsednik.
Mattingly mentioned Jay Gibbons and Xavier Paul as potential starters, adding that third baseman Casey Blake could also play there occasionally.
(Gibbons returned to Los Angeles on Tuesday to get his eyes examined after complaining of blurred vision while playing winter ball in Venezuela.)
The coaching staff has also changed. Mattingly was promoted from hitting coach to manager, replacing the retired Joe Torre. Old-school coaches Larry Bowa and Bob Schaefer are no longer with the team.
Davey Lopes was hired as the first base coach, in part because of his baserunning expertise. Trey Hillman will be the bench coach, Tim Wallach is the third base coach and Jeff Pentland the head hitting coach.
Mattingly said he thought the coaching staff might have mishandled certain situations last year.
Asked what he learned, Mattingly said, "I really want a positive environment. This game is meant to be played, for me, as that little kid that played in Little League, with that kind of excitement. It shouldn't feel like a job when you come here."
So, was the coaching staff overly negative last year?
"Last year was last year," he said.