When the Los Angeles Dodgers open their season in Australia, outfielder Matt Kemp will be in one of two places, neither of which is in the starting lineup.
The perennial All-Star is recovering from an ankle injury that sidelined him through the Dodgers’ postseason run last fall and will, in all likelihood, push his debut back into April. Come March 22, Kemp will either rehabilitate at the team’s Camelback Ranch complex or he will hobble into the Australian Outback as the fourth outfielder he would rather not be.
Both scenarios signal a growing separation between player and team that neither can afford. Kemp needs the Dodgers just as much as they need him to be base-stealing, fence-rattling, celebrity-dating MVP candidate that led the franchise for over five years. He is the missing link in an offense that was shut out twice and averaged only two runs per game in the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals. If healthy, Kemp can still be the face of Dodgers baseball.
Trade rumors will come and go, but Kemp will call Chavez Ravine his second home at season’s end. There are too many reasons for keeping him. If anything, there are four clear-cut reasons why Magic Johnson and company can’t afford to let Kemp go.
Potential for Injury in the Outfield
Carl Crawford is two years removed from multiple surgeries that limited him to 30 games in 2012. Needless to say, he is a shell of the player Boston signed to a 7-year, $142 million contract.
Crawford put up a slash line of .283/.329/.407 in his first full season with the Dodgers; decent considering he missed almost a full month after pulling a hamstring, but disappointing when one realizes he hasn’t played over 130 games since 2011. That isn’t to say that Crawford won’t regain his All-Star form, but Don Mattingly won’t hesitate to bench him with so much depth in the dugout. Kemp is the insurance policy Los Angeles needs following Crawford’s all-but-certain breakdown.
As long as he isn’t crashing into walls, which he occasionally does, Yasiel Puig will be the everyday right fielder. His all-out style is reminiscent of Kemp’s, especially when comparing similar collisions against Coors Field walls. Kemp’s left shoulder required offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum. Meanwhile, Puig bruised his left hip in a game last season and was listed as day-to-day.
The 23-year-old Cuban hasn’t suffered any major setbacks but his aggressive and sometimes erratic style of play make for a dangerous combination. If Kemp is relegated to fourth outfielder duties, chances are he won’t be there for long.
A Lack of Power and Speed
Kemp and Hanley Ramirez, the team’s biggest power threats heading into 2013, missed a combined 165 games due to injury and Puig didn’t make his debut until June. The offense was bound to suffer.
Los Angeles ranked 24th in home runs and 15th in slugging among major league ball clubs. Adrian Gonzalez willed the offense through the summer, leading in batting average (.293), homers (22), and RBI (100) while his reinforcements recovered. Gonzalez, a healthy Ramirez and a full season of Puig form arguably the most fearsome trio in MLB. Throw in Kemp and they are unmatched.
Kemp is an imminent threat both in the batter’s box and on the base paths. He is the five-tool player Puig will be and the one Ramirez would have been were it not for his shaky fielding and lifetime -3.5 dWAR.
From his first full season in 2008 to his last complete one in 2011, Kemp averaged 28 home runs and 32 stolen bases with a 5.2 WAR; figures that would have easily led the team last season. Granted, this isn’t 2011 and the Dodgers don’t know if Kemp will ever come close to what he was, but it’s worth the risk. Kemp can still be a 50-50 player, his body just has to follow suit.
Few Teams Will Take His Contract
Let’s face facts. If Kemp hit the free agent market today, he wouldn’t garner the 8-year, $160 million deal he signed following the 2011 campaign. Aside from the New York Yankees, teams don’t trade for high risk players and even if the Dodgers find a suitor, they’ll be hard pressed find a balanced offer.
Boston knew they made mistake in signing Crawford and dumped his salary on the Dodgers who were looking to reinvent themselves. To date, this trade is the exception as both organizations have attained success; the Red Sox becoming world champions last year and the Dodgers falling two wins short of the World Series. This isn’t always the case as the Yankees learned with Alex Rodriguez.
The Yankees are bound to Rodriguez’ enormous contract that has him in pinstripes until 2017. MLB’s villain signed a pair of 10-year deals with the Yankees and Texas Rangers that left the ball clubs with their hands tied. A-Rod’s contract placed a stranglehold on Texas’ front office they wouldn’t escape until New York sent Alfonso Soriano, Joaquin Arias, and $67 million in return.
If Kemp is traded this season, it’s because someone hit the panic button. The Yankees did it with Rodriguez and the Los Angeles Angels did it with Vernon Wells, who still earns over $18 million a year as a free agent. The Dodgers best course of action would be to see how the season plays out and give prospective buyers a reason to want Kemp. Just don’t expect a team to take on his full salary.
Kemp is Only 29 Years Old
Youth is on Kemp’s side. He is the Dodgers’ second-youngest starting outfielder and is under team control until 2019.
Crawford becomes a free agent in 2017, Andre Ethier in 2018, and less than $3 million separate their average annual salaries from Kemp’s. Moving their contracts before then would seem like the best long-term move, especially when considering Puig’s looming contract extension.
Kemp still has a lifetime of baseball left to play and there is, after all, a Comeback Player of the Year Award he could win. In 2011, then 24-year-old Buster Posey suffered a fractured fibula and torn ligaments in his ankle during a home plate collision and went on to win the award. Obviously comparing broken bones to nagging shoulder injuries is like comparing apples to oranges, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Posey and Kemp are young players who persevered through adversity.
Outfielder Joc Pederson, Baseball America’s No. 34 prospect, may be a year or two away from big league action, but when he gets the call Kemp would be the ideal mentor. Eight years with the Boys in Blue have made Kemp the leader Los Angeles needs him to be. The only question now is whether he will be around to complete a ninth.