Don Mattingly talked about moving furniture around, though the way the Dodgers have played this season there must be a couple of chairs missing in Chavez Ravine. Two six-game losing streaks and sole possession of last place in the National League West isn’t exactly what Magic Johnson and company had in mind when they coughed up $2 billion for the team and $215 million for their first opening-day roster.
Things aren’t much better 31 miles down Interstate 5, where the team that always seems to be playing in the shadow of the Dodgers is shadowing them loss for loss. The Angels lineup that was supposed to instill fear in opposing pitchers is sputtering so badly that starter C.J. Wilson suggested the club either needed to get a pin cushion out or sacrifice something other than a fly ball.
Money can’t buy happiness, at least so far in Los Angeles, where two teams full of big-money players are floundering. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have done little to justify their massive salaries, while the Dodgers were better at this time last year with a lineup that consisted largely of Matt Kemp and an assortment of utility infielders.
The Dodgers, of course, were the grand experiment in spending, with new owners acting like George Steinbrenner in his prime, swinging big trades and throwing wads of cash at free agents. But even the Yankees — now trying to reduce payroll —have learned in recent years that big salaries don’t necessarily translate into big World Series celebrations.
The Dodgers have had injuries, yes, but all teams have injuries. What they may not have is team chemistry, something Mattingly alluded to a few days ago when he talked about his team not having much energy in some early season games.
That’s partly the manager’s fault, since it’s his job to integrate new talent and put the team in a position to win. Indeed, the jury is still out on Mattingly, who served an apprenticeship under Joe Torre but failed in his first two seasons at the helm to get the Dodgers in the playoffs.
The same could be said about general manager Ned Colletti. After several years of not being allowed to spend money under former owner Frank McCourt, he was handed the combination to the bank vault under new Dodger owners and promptly began throwing money at any player he could find.
That got the Dodgers Carl Crawford, who so far has been a pleasant surprise. But it also saddled them with a past-his-prime Josh Beckett, who has yet to win a game this season and who pitches so slowly that Dodger fans who used to arrive fashionably late in the third inning now find themselves getting there in the first inning on days he’s on the mound.
Adrian Gonzalez, meanwhile, has been a steady hitter but is suffering from a mysterious lack of power. With Kemp struggling to find his groove, too, the Dodgers have hit only 23 home runs.
“I don’t think there’s any magic formula,” Mattingly said after the Dodgers lost their sixth straight Tuesday night. “We can move the furniture around. We can get guys in different spots. Once we get past all the smoke and mirrors, we have to perform.”
Performance is also the issue for the Angels, who rallied after a slow start last year to become contenders but who are in an even deeper hole this season. Pujols is threatening to be both a long term disappointment and long term liability for the team, which is committed to him for eight seasons after this, while Hamilton is a shell of the hitter owner Arte Moreno thought he was getting for $125 million over five years.
The Angels haven’t made the playoffs in three years, and there’s no reason to believe this group of underachievers will, either. The only reason they’re not in last place is that the hapless Houston Astros — whose entire payroll is just $2 million more than Hamilton is making this season — were welcomed into the AL West this year.
After losing their second in a row to those same Astros on Wednesday night — despite Hamilton’s third home run of the season — the Angels were 11-22 and desperate for anything to break their slide.
“We can try to be more studious and (maybe) sacrifice something and maybe get a pin cushion out,” Wilson said a night earlier. “I don’t know. We are losing a lot of one-run games, and it’s really frustrating.
Those one-run games are the kind that manager Mike Scioscia used to find a way to win. But the manager with the longest current tenure in the majors — he’s in his 14th year — has done little this year other than watch with a pained look while Pujols and Hamilton lunge at bad pitches.
It might be that Scioscia’s time has run its course with the Angels. Maybe someone else can light a fire under Pujols and Hamilton, who are hitting .240 and .205, respectively, with eight home runs between them.
Or maybe the Angels and Dodgers need something else. Something different. Like owners who understand that the best way to win consistently is to build a strong farm system; owners who sign free agents to fill specific needs instead of simply trying to fill stadiums.
Owners who aren’t afraid to spend money, sure.
But owners who actually have a plan.