By Ross Newhan
While Don Mattingly keeps pulling rabbits out of the hat--like Scott Van Slyke, Ivan De Jesus and Matt Treanor--as the Dodgers produce the best record in baseball, Mike Scioscia's experience with the Angels has been more hair raising.
How does one know when early becomes late over the course of a 162 game season? Former Dodger executive Al Campanis used to borrow from Branch Rickey and say that it is impossible to know what kind of team you have until you have played every other team in the league.
Well, Rickey and Campanis--at least for a long time--operated when each league had only eight teams and you had played the entire league by June or earlier.
Now, with 16 teams in the National League and 14 in the American, and interleague play mixed in, a team may not have played every other team in its league until mid-season.
However, what we do know is that a quarter of the season has been played, which is a pretty good foundation for formultating ideas, and one suspects that Mattingly and the Dodgers--despite the uncertain financial footing of winter and spring--have some magic working for them that will certainly influence the new owners to spend on playing help at the trade deadline, particularly in a division in which the defending champion, Arizona, along with Colorado and San Diego, are already playing their way toward oblivion, and San Francisco can't seem to muster a sustained streak of the type it should be capable of generating on a regular basis given the caliber of the rotation.
In the case of the Giants, however, it may be more early than late.
They represent a formidable hurdle in the heat of the summer, when Mattingly and the Dodgers face some hard realiies despite their 7-2 record without Matt Kemp and those little miracles that have added up to 30-13 overall (and 75-41 under Mattingly since last mid-season despite the ownership turmoil).
Consider this: With Kemp's return on Monday, the Dodgers really only have three positions locked down on a regular basis. They are center field with Kemp, right field with Andre Eithier and, giving him the benefit of a considerable doubt, shortstop with Dee Gordon. In addition, Chris Capuano, who has shared the title of first quarter ace with Clayton Kershaw, has not won more than 11 games in a season since winning 18 with Milwaukee seven years ago; Chad Billingsley, basically a .500 pitcher for three straight seasons is headed that way again; and Kenley Jansen is more of an adventure than a certainty in the closer role.
The Dodgers need a premium addition, meaning that come the July deadline, owner Mark Walter is going to have to call on one of the insurance companies that helped finance his purchase.
We know what Angel owner Arte Moreno spent on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson during the winter, but it guaranteed neither a division title nor franchise peace.
The Angels are not dead in the American League West, but the relationship between General Manager Jerry DiPoto and Scioscia pretty much is, as I have written before.
DiPoto's firing of hitting coach Mickey Hatcher, a handy scapegoat for the team's staggering start, ended the idea of pre-game lunches with Scioscia, whose contract extends through 2018 but may be wearing a different uniform by then.
The players know DiPoto is in charge now, and that doesn't help in a situation where Scioscia has drawn more media questioning of strategical moves than in any of his 12 previous seasons.
The manager, however, is basically dealing with a roster that forces him to hope sophomore Mark Trumbo and rookie Mike Trout can produce enough offense for what should be a dominant rotation. Otherwise, Torri Hunter is on the restricted list, dealing with a family issue that is likely to weigh on him the rest of the season. Vernon Wells will be sidelined for eight weeks with a finger injury, catcher Chris Ianetta is sidelined with a hand injury, Howie Kendrick has a 24% strike out rate amid his overall regression, Kendrys Morales can't really run and doesn't have much reason to, and Pujols is still batting just North of the Mendoza line, and the Birthers are out again, claiming Pujols is much older than 32.
I have no evidence either way, but at this point Scioscia needs Pujols to be Pujols. In the longterm, that would top any search for rabbits.