Blue grit: For Mattingly, toughness breeds success
SYDNEY -- The Dodgers are rich and talented enough. But are they tough enough?
Don Mattingly wanted to see more toughness from the club when he took over as manager three years ago. The Dodgers showed grit in 2013 in storming from worst to first over the final three months to win the division and beat the Braves in the National League Division Series, but they stumbled on the final hurdle and were eliminated by the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series.
The 2014 season opens in Australia on Saturday (1 a.m. PT, 7 p.m. in Sydney) against the D-backs, who saw a meaner side of the Dodgers during last season's melee. Both clubs can make the case that the incident decided their seasons -- for better and worse.
From the on-field confrontation to clinching the division and celebrating in the D-backs' pool, Los Angeles rubbed Arizona's nose in its success, and Kirk Gibson's team is on a mission of revenge.
"You look at baseball and you don't think of the game in terms of toughness," said Mattingly, who got a three-year extension in January. "People think of football, hockey -- in this country, rugby. Baseball is more about mental toughness, getting ready to play day in and day out, with travel and getting into town late and all kinds of things. It's not easy to do."
So is this club tough enough to clear that final hurdle and get to the World Series?
"We feel like we're tough," Mattingly said. "We were down 10 games in the division and ended up winning by 10 or 11. To me, we went through a lot. We're not afraid of the field."
General manager Ned Colletti said that tough teams survive "crossroad" moments in a season, a game, an inning, an at-bat.
"You have to prepare, to focus and have the passion for it all to be at a competitively advantageous level," Colletti said. "I think we are tough enough. We had the makings of it last year. We developed toughness through adversity. We stayed the course through the first two months, we went 42-8 and got within two wins of the World Series without [Matt] Kemp, with Hanley [Ramirez] playing hurt and [Andre Ethier] not at full strength, yet we came that close. So I know we have it."
The Dodgers also have a payroll that continues to climb, now approaching $250 million, but the expectations remain the same as the day Guggenheim Baseball Partners bought the team from Frank McCourt. Win a World Series. Then another.
The pitching staff is loaded. Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dan Haren (Ricky Nolasco's replacement) could form the best starting quartet the club has had. Depending on health and the time of the year, the fifth starter could be Josh Beckett, Paul Maholm or Chad Billingsley, all former All-Stars.
The bullpen is even deeper. Kenley Jansen, Brian Wilson, Chris Perez (Ronald Belisario's replacement), J.P. Howell and Brandon League have all had 20-plus save seasons -- and Jose Dominguez might have a better arm than any of them. Paco Rodriguez was one of the toughest lefties until he got worn out late, and Chris Withrow began justifying his first-round status. Veteran Jamey Wright is the long man.
The main spring project was figuring out second base after miscalculating the readiness of Cuban Alex Guerrero to step in for Mark Ellis. Guerrero needs more time, but Dee Gordon made the transition from shortstop, adding his game-changing speed to a lineup that has the potential to score. Justin Turner could be the platoon-mate.
And although some observers count four outfielders for three positions, having four healthy outfielders has been hypothetical so far.
Kemp hasn't been healthy since 2011, and he might be soon, but there are no guarantees. Carl Crawford missed a month last season, already is absent because of the imminent birth of his child and on Tuesday left a Minor League game because of the flu.
Yasiel Puig remains the wild card -- literally. After introducing himself a year ago with a jaw-dropping .517 batting average, he hit .120 this spring and has caused concern on the field. He's hitting the cutoff man, which is a vast fundamental improvement, but his baserunning discipline remains an unknown because he hasn't been on base much.
The most reliable of the four turns out to be Ethier, who seamlessly became a center fielder out of necessity last season, as well as an ironman.
Adrian Gonzalez was the unsung MVP of the offense last season, and Ramirez could be primed for an MVP season himself, with free agency looming. But the talk of a contract extension has quieted; the Dodgers apparently want to see if Ramirez can stay healthier than he did last season.
Juan Uribe is back, and the club is hoping he plays the way he did last season, when he needed a new contract, and not the way he did the two previous years after receiving one.
A.J. Ellis and Tim Federowicz return behind the plate, where offense is considered secondary to their ability to get the most out of the pitchers.
The bench was rebuilt after the team let Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker depart, with Jerry Hairston retiring. Chone Figgins (after a year exile) and Mike Baxter won their spots, joining Scott Van Slyke.