GLENDALE -- Matt Kemp on the first day of full squad workouts at Dodger Stadium in some respects looked like the Matt Kemp of old, launching home runs during batting practice on Friday. Afterward he displayed the bravado of one of the best hitters in baseball, combined with the patience of someone who has had his last two seasons wrecked by injuries.
"It's hard to be the player you can be when you've been hurt for a while," Kemp said. "My confidence level is still going to be where it's at. It's just frustrating."
Kemp had left shoulder surgery for the second straight offseason, but this year he was able to lift weights during the winter, allowing his trademark power to return. His shoulder is now fully healed and it shows when he is hitting, with a much freer range of motion, allowing him to fully follow through on his swing.
"I couldn't really get through the ball," Kemp said. "I was cutting my swing off, couldn't get extension."
In 2011 Kemp finished second in the MVP balloting after hitting .324/.399/.586 with 39 home runs and 40 stolen bases. He started off 2012 even hotter, hitting .417/.490/.893 with 12 home runs in 23 games in April.
But since then numerous injuries have sidelined Kemp, including five trips to the disabled list for hamstring strains, shoulder inflammation and a badly sprained ankle. He has played in just 156 of the Dodgers' last 301 games.
It's the left ankle that keeps Kemp grounded now. He had surgery in October to remove torn cartilage, and is still not fully recovered. Kemp has not yet been cleared to run outdoors or put any undue pressure on the ankle. He is limited to using a treadmill that simulates weightlessness, to limit stress on the ankle.
He did take ground balls in the outfield on Friday, but did no running.
Kemp is unlikely to be ready for the Dodgers' trip to Australia, and it is unclear whether or not he will be ready for domestic opening day, on March 30 against the Padres. The patient approach is new for Kemp.
"Me rushing back hasn't helped any in the past two years, so I need to take a different approach," Kemp said. "Rushing back I'm better, but when I come back other injuries happen from rushing back. I don't want to be the player who comes back, feels good, gets hurt again, comes back. I want to be 100%."
The Dodgers have the luxury of waiting for Kemp, with three other capable outfielders presumably ready to play in Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford. I tried to ask Kemp if the existence of the other three helped in any way his patience in his return, but Kemp bristled.
"I'm not a fourth outfielder. We can cut that off right now, that's the last question you need to ask me. I'm not a fourth outfielder, I'm not going to be a fourth outfielder. I'm here to help my team by playing every day," Kemp said. "When it's time for me to come back, I'll come back and be the player I've been in past years when I was healthy."
"I don't know where you all keep getting this fourth outfielder talk from, man. You all love talking about four outfielders. That's the question of the day, every day."
My response: "We just count."
"I get it. I think all of us four outfielders feel the same way. None of us are fourth outfielders, and everyone wants to play every day," Kemp said. "I won't accept that role, I can't accept that role."
There was nothing malicious in Kemp's tone, nor did he even raise his voice throughout the conversation with reporters - if anything, he was in quite the jovial mood, pointing to his arms and joking earlier, "You see this upper body? These massive arms? I'm swoll again, bro. I'm a monster. I look good, man."
Again, it comes back to confidence for Kemp. And he's absolutely correct. If healthy, there is very little reason to think Kemp would sit very often at all. But "if healthy" has been a caveat for nearly two years, and one that Kemp is working hard to correct.
One day at a time.
"I'm just grateful I can walk again, man. Being in a damn boot, being in a roller, in a sling. Wow, it's been a lot to deal with. It teaches you to be a tougher person, a better person," Kemp said. "Everything happens for a reason."