There was a little unease in the air the other day in Pittsburgh when, a little more than two hours before first pitch, Don Mattingly still hadn't posted the Dodgers' lineup.
The outfield concoction is, of course, a consistent source of fascination in that clubhouse. The Dodgers, in Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and valuable utilityman Scott Van Slyke, have too many bodies, too many cumbersome contracts and, alas, a little too much ego on their hands to avoid daily drama in that department.
Mattingly, for his part, answers the constant questions and the not-so-subtle speculation about what's ahead with reactions anywhere from bemused to begrudged to just plain bedraggled.
"Probably better some days than others," he admitted. "It depends how much sleep I've had or if we're winning or losing."
The Dodgers have not been winning much since the All-Star break. They lost two of three to the Cardinals and two of three to the Pirates to fall 1 1/2 games behind their National League West rival Giants, their opponent in an important weekend series at AT&T Park.
What's troubling for the Dodgers, in general, is that they haven't fared very well against winning teams (18-24 against clubs .500 or better and 3-7 against the Giants, in particular) and they haven't won more than three in a row at any point.
Now might be a good time to change both trends.
Intrinsic in the recent results is the health of two vital members of the lineup, as Hanley Ramirez and Puig each suffered an injured hand on a hit-by-pitch in St. Louis and didn't start a single game in Pittsburgh. Puig should be back in the lineup Friday night, while Ramirez, who was already nursing a sore shoulder and hasn't swung a bat all week, is a little more iffy.
Turns out, that lineup delay Wednesday was merely related to those health concerns and not anything in conjunction to the upcoming non-waiver Trade Deadline on July 31 -- an event that always causes uncomfortability this time of year and particularly when the daily routine is thrown off any way whatsoever.
But there should be unease in Dodgers territory, because at some point soon -- especially with Puig healthy -- a decision must be made on how best to handle an untenable outfield situation on a team that has begun to look quite old quite quickly.
Right now, 22-year-old outfield prospect Joc Pederson, the newest member of the 20-homer, 20-steal club in Triple-A, doubles as tantalizing trade bait and potential saving grace at the big league level. Which direction the Dodgers go with the kid could be the most impactful decision made in the West this season.
Pederson, who has a 1.039 OPS at Albuquerque, is likely the starting point of any conversation with the Rays about David Price, and given the recent results for both Josh Beckett and Dan Haren at the back of the rotation, the thought of Price locking arms with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu to form an October assault capable of overcoming nearly any offensive funk has to be a tempting one for Ned Colletti and Co.
But Price might very well stay put, given the Rays' recent winning ways. And you can make an awfully convincing argument that Pederson ought to stay put, as well. Because this is an organization that could stand to benefit from his youthful upside in the lineup.
As in, right now.
"He can play center field," an NL scout said. "He's going to swing and miss at the big league level, but there would be impressive contact as well when he gets it right."
Of course, adding Pederson would cut into the time for Kemp, Crawford and Ethier and create even more opportunity for clubhouse discord, which the Dodgers certainly don't need. They're in a tough spot, because none of those guys are particularly appealing trade bait. Crawford and Ethier are both turning in an OPS under .700 while signed through 2017 at exorbitant rates. Kemp had a strong June, but his performance is still not in line with the $107 million remaining on his contract from 2015-19.
Contracts aside, Puig remains the biggest source of fascination and frustration. He's hit just .268 with one home run since May 28, and his overall coachability and adaptability to the expected Major League routine remains lacking. The Dodgers once praised the strides he made in attitude and work ethic, but that was back when he was hitting .349 with a 1.061 OPS.
Funny how the behind-the-scenes eye-rolls have returned now that the results are lacking.
That said, Puig is considered a mainstay in the lineup. The only question is where to put him now that Kemp has taken such a liking to right field after a pouty attempt at left. Mattingly said earlier this week that he had never seriously considered Puig in center field because "he's out of control most of the time." Yet the attitude has shifted suddenly, to the point that Puig might very well be starting in center in the most important series of the season, to date.
"I'd consider doing whatever we have to do to put our best lineup out there," Mattingly said.
That's all Mattingly can do, because the ego-management element of his gig can only go so far, and the questions will keep coming regardless of what concoction he rolls out.
"Some days," he said, "[the attention] gets a little tiring."
The Dodgers have gone through several stretches this season where they look a little tired, a little thin. With their rotation intact, they're a safe bet to advance to October. That's not the issue. The issue is whether the lineup can be counted upon to consistently ease the burden on the three top arms and allow this team to advance through October -- the stated goal all along.
It will be fascinating to see if the Deadline forces any activity on the outfield front, because a Dodgers team yet to get on a real roll against quality opponents might benefit from a new Joc in the mix.