Ned Colletti & Don Mattingly Talk Dodgers with Lasorda’s Lair

GLENDALE – Things couldn’t possibly be more different for the Dodgers entering 2013 Spring Training than they were just one year ago. Sure there is the millions of dollars spent on new players, renovating Dodger Stadium, rebuilding an entire scouting/player development program etc…But it wasn’t until I spent some time at Camelback Ranch recently that the changes really hit home. The new ownership group is keeping every promise they made when they bought the team and the Dodgers are finally acting like the Dodgers again.

The realization of just how sweeping the changes the Dodgers have made, and how the organization has really been rebuilt from the ground up to maintain long term sustainability, became evident after having the privilege of spending about an hour speaking with GM Ned Colletti and Manager Don Mattingly. After Ned overcame the shock of “You traveled from Utah for this?” This being the recent Dodgers minor league player development camp, talk quickly shifted to numerous Dodgers players.

I have literally been digesting so much information and going back and forth on what I feel Ned and Donnie (yeah we’re on a first name basis now) wouldn’t mind me sharing, that my post is a couple weeks late. But keep reading cause I promise you’ll read info straight from the GM and Manager that you won’t see anywhere else. I can promise this cause there were only 5 of us  at the table and I’ve seen the comments from the other 2 writers, so sit back Lasorda’s Lairian’s and enjoy your own personal Dodgers exclusive.

Feb 23, 2011; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti (left) talks with manager Don Mattingly (8) during spring training at Camelback Ranch. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Again there is so much info that I’m throwing format out the window and strictly going player by player/subject by subject.

On Matt Kemp: Ned “Kemp started swinging a bat on Monday (January 7) and has resumed full baseball activities.” This obviously isn’t breaking news but the fact that he was working with Mark McGwire at Camelback Ranch the day we were there, this far ahead of the start of camp is glorious news for Dodgers Fans. BTW more on Mr. McGwire in a bit, he may just turn out to be the Dodgers most underrated signing of the entire off-season.

On the overall health of the team (aside from the guys who just had surgery IE Elbert): Ned “We don’t have anybody right now that we don’t think isn’t going to be able to participate in spring training from the outset of it, so as of now we’re okay.” More good news.

On Chad Billingsley: Ned “Billingsley is going to start throwing on the 15th of January which is what he’s typically done.” Bills has been on his usual off-season throwing program so hopefully that means the elbow ligament is strong and stays that way all year. Imagine a healthy and effective Chad Billingsley as your 4th starter, sound pretty good doesn’t it.

On Carl Crawford: Ned “He is hitting and throwing.”

Donnie “I saw him (Crawford) yesterday on my way here, had a nice little lunch, he’s in a good frame of mind and excited to meet his teammates.” On where he might hit in the lineup “We talked about all kinds of stuff from where he wants to live to what kind of routines he likes, what time he likes to get to the ballpark, outfield communication, stealing bags. It was kind of the last question but I said Carl I hear you don’t like hitting leadoff and Carl said,” “I have no idea where that came from. I hit leadoff all the way to the big leagues and I read that stuff and I’m like I’ll do whatever you want to do.” Donnie then added, “But that being said he feels like he’s had his most success in the 2 hole that’s where he’s most comfortable.” Crawford also reinforced the notion that he won’t hit leadoff by telling Donnie “You guys tell me where you want me to hit, I played for Lou Piniella do you think I could tell Piniella I don’t like hitting leadoff?”

On the lineup: Donnie “Leadoff is the one spot I wrestle with, not having that true leadoff guy so it will be a work during spring training of kinda using different guys, there’s different combinations vs lefties but hitting is hitting if your hitting 5th or 6th or 1st. The only difference is in the 2 hole sometimes if you got a guy that runs, if you got a Dee Gordon in front of you, it takes a special guy there to take some pitches.”

On Dee Gordon: Ned “He’s in the same place, we have options we have choices but we asked a lot of Dee last year, we asked him to accomplish a lot of things at a young baseball age, a young experience age, you gotta be patient and he’s someone to be patient with. You’re not gonna find that skill set, especially in the middle of the infield a lot.”

On using Dee Gordon in the OF: Donnie “We kicked that around a bit during the winter meetings, and teams we talked to liked him in the OF. But then everyone I talked to that would be putting him in the field and writing that lineup were all putting him at shortstop. We kinda felt the OF talk (by the other teams) was them trying to steal someone from us kinda bring his value down. My personal opinion and we all got em is I hate to give up on him at short cause I think that if we can get a guy that is solid defensively and he can continue to grow we’ve got great moves.”

On the left side of the infield: Ned “We’re in the same place we were at the end of last year. Hanley knows what the expectation is, he’s played SS before it’s not like we have to teach him a new position. I don’t want to speak for Donnie’s conversations with him but I think Hanley understands he has the chance for this year to be a big year for him and to be a good defensive player at that position, coupled with what he’s not just capable of but what he has done offensively that too is a pretty special skill set.” Hanley is huge to the Dodgers 2013 success IMO. With Ethier, Crawford & Adrian Gonzalez teams will parade out lefty specialist after lefty specialist at the end of games. If the Dodgers can get the Hanley Ramirez that was one of the best all around players as recently as 2009 and 2010 look out. He did suffer injuries in 2011, then dealt with a position change he had no say in last year, so the potential for Hanley to go back to being Hanley is there in my opinion.

Donnie “We all talked to Hanley before he left at the end of last year and I talked to him a couple times during the winter about the expectations for him and we feel like we’re the best club with him at short. But that being said Hanley has a responsibility to work on his game. I’ve been up front with him I feel like he needs to get better, improve (defensively) and that’s where it’s at.”

On Luis Cruz aka ‘The Cruzer’: Ned “Last he told us was he was going to San Diego to work with Adrian (Gonzalez obviously) he’ll be training with Adrian which is a good thing in my mind. Adrian works really hard at what he does so I think Cruz will come in in a good place.”

On Cruz’s 2012 being a long year for him: Ned “When you think about it, this guy grinded out through a minor league season in 2011, went to winter ball and tore it up, came in here and really had a good camp. Then got sent down and tore it up again then got to the big leagues and continued to, so it was a lot of baseball for him.” Good news for Cruuuuz fans as Ned and Donnie were both matter of fact no doubt he’s the starting 3rd baseman, let’s just hope he continues to hit.

On Kenley Jansen‘s health: Ned “I should probably check with medical but we just met with him and there is nothing on the radar for anyone who was skeptical. After he had the procedure he had to go on blood thinners for a period of time so he could throw but couldn’t have any physical activity so to speak. But that period of time has long passed.”

Donnie “There have been no warning signs and everything I’ve heard is this guys in great shape doing well. He got off the blood thinners a lot quicker than they thought. I haven’t heard there even being a question about Kenley being healthy when he walks into camp.” More great news for Dodgers fans as Kenley will be HUGE out of the Dodgers pen this year.

On the roster: Ned”I think we’re fine right now if this is where we come into camp we’re in a good spot De Jon’s added some interesting non roster players to compete here so I think we’re okay. If something else turns up that’s interesting or if a team comes to us looking for a particular need they need to fill it’ll jostle us a bit to make other decisions. But right now if these are the 40 we’re going into camp with then I’m fine with it. Starting in late July to late December we’ve made a lot of adjustments to this club that puts us in a real good spot. We knew last year that we were making massive changes we had 8 different guys than we started with and we knew that was a lot to ask and we knew the transition wasn’t going to take place over a matter of days. While we thought it could help the 2012 club get a better run to it we also knew that really 2013 and beyond was where the moves were gonna pay some dividends for the organization.” Here here, are you excited yet Dodgers fans?

On having 8 potential starting pitchers entering camp: Donnie “We have a few question marks when you talk about Bills and Lilly so it’s nice to have that depth. We’re going to work them all as starters this spring then at the end sit down and make the best decisions.”

Ned “I haven’t had 1 player or agent say hey I can count this I don’t want to be a part of it. I haven’t had 1 player ask to be traded. They all want to compete and see how it turns out.” He’s referring to the 8 possible starting pitchers at this point.

Ned on the past 12 months: “The past 12 months have been very interesting for the organization in a lot of ways. So because of that you do have some transition it’s not going to be a perfect puzzle right away because you build one team in one era so to speak and another team in another era and they were technically days apart. So you’re going to have a little bit of a process that still needs to take place, where it can smooth itself out a little bit and it’s not overloaded on one end vs another. That’s something we’re just going to have to live with and live through and make the best decisions we can make cause you can’t do it the two ways we did it without having that as a part of it. With pitching you’d always rather have too much of it than too little cause the day you don’t have depth your gonna be called out on it by the fates that exist. So we’ll see it’ll be day to day.” These comments by Ned are fascinating to me. I don’t think I have ever given him the credit he deserves, go back re-read that last paragraph and look at his overall vision of the past 12 months. I’m guilty of Ned bashing for certain free agent signings but this is some good stuff from Ned here.

On Belisario: Ned “We just had one of our scouts with him and he seems to be doing alright. He knows what’s at stake he knows our expectation and he knows what his expectation is too for his career. He’s arbitration eligible for the first time.” Shortly after this Ned asked that we turn off the recorders and there was some fascinating conversation.

Highlights include the signing of JP Howell and I can’t go into details about exactly what he told Ned over the phone after he signed with the Dodgers, but let’s just say he’s excited to be putting on the Dodger blue. He supposedly turned down a multi- year offer from another club to sign with the Dodgers, and if his on field performance is indicative of his reaction to signing with the club, he should become a fan favorite very quickly.

Also those of you who scoffed at the Dodgers signing of Ryu Hyun-jin, Keith Law of ESPN I’m looking in your direction, since you referred to him as a “bad bodied lefty.” BTW I can think of a certain bad bodied lefty that’s done okay for the Yankees recently. But back to my point, when I asked Ned about Ryu he lit up and said that the Dodgers had personally spent more time and had more eyes who scouted Ryu than ANY international player they had EVER signed. Now I’m not sure if he’s going back as far as the Pedro Martinez, Fernando Valenzuela days, but that’s saying something. If you’re worried about Ryu personally I would stop right now. The Dodgers can scout and if what Ned said about Ryu is true then he’ll be just fine thank you very much.

There’s so much more but this is getting near the 2500 word mark so let me touch on 1 more matter that stood out to me while enjoying the 70 degree weather at Camelback Ranch.  Mark McGwire is seriously passionate about hitting and I really feel the Dodgers offense will reflect the individual hitting gameplans he develops with each player. We spoke with him for about 20 minutes and you could just tell he’s thrilled to be in Dodger blue, he knows what he’s doing, and the Dodgers hitters are going to benefit as a result.

Just look at his previous employer and where they ranked statistically with the bat in recent years. If you’re worried he can’t help develop young hitters how did David Freese and Allen Craig do? Worried that he can’t help revive an older player’s career? Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran seemed to benefit from working with McGwire. He seemed excited, focused and passionate about bringing his hitting strategy to LA, not to mention having a second set of eyes in  assistant hitting coach John Valentin, and a 3rd set in Don Mattingly. I’ll be very surprised if the Dodgers aren’t a dramatically better hitting club this year particularly situationally.

The calendar has officially turned to February, we are literally days away from pitchers and catchers reporting to camp. Yes the Dodgers have a giant target on them as well as massive expectations. But based on everything I personally saw and heard they are more than ready for the challenge. If you don’t believe me let me know, I left the meeting with Ned Colletti’s cell phone number. I’ll text him your doubt’s and get back to you…I don’t know about you but for me “It’s time for Dodger baseball!”