LOS ANGELES — Though he wasn’t at Fan Fest on Saturday at Dodger Stadium, Matt Kemp was a popular topic among Dodgers. It still seems likely that Kemp could be traded but to this point he hasn’t, and every day he remains increases the likelihood he will be with the team when spring training camp opens in a few weeks.
The Dodgers acquired Kemp on Dec. 16 in a five-player deal with the Braves that was more about economics and salary maneuvering than actual baseball. That deal accelerated the Dodgers’ chances of getting under the $197 million competitive balance tax threshold in 2018, which would reset their penalties should they exceed the threshold in future years.
“I understand what the Dodgers are doing, trying to go under the luxury tax to try to reset. It’s totally understandable,” said closer Kenley Jansen, a teammate of Kemp’s for five seasons. “To have Matt back, if it’s a situation that he’s going to stay here, is exciting. We have confidence in what Andrew and Farhan are going to do. They put us in a great situation to put us in a position to hopefully win a championship multiple times.”
If Kemp is going to stay here, that is.
“He’s in a situation where he’s in flux as far as what the organization expects of him. But my thing with him is he’s in great shape and focused on being with us in ’18 and prepared to play well,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He’s going to come in with an open mind and will try to win a job.”
The prevailing thought from Saturday is that Kemp, who worked out at Dodger Stadium within the last two weeks, is in great shape. That would be necessary for an improvement over the last three years of Kemp since leaving LA, hitting .269/.310/.470, a 109 OPS+ with 77 home runs in 425 games, with subpar defense in the outfield corners in San Diego and Atlanta.
“A motivated Matt Kemp can help a lot of teams in baseball, including us,” said general manager Farhan Zaidi.
Should Kemp remain, he joins an outfield mix that already has Joc Pederson, Kiké Hernandez and Andrew Toles fighting for playing time along with regulars Yasiel Puig and Chris Taylor. This has been made clear to Kemp since he was acquired in December.
“Part of the issue is we have a crowded outfield. For any outfielder coming into our situation, it’s not a great spot. There aren’t at-bats readily available. He understands the dynamic,” Zaidi said. “He’s going to have a chance to prove himself if he’s still in this organization.”
If he’s still in the organization.
Moving Kemp is difficult because he’s owed $21.5 million in each of the next two seasons, with a competitive balance tax number of $20 million, the average annual value of his eight-year contract signed after his near-MVP 2011 campaign. If there was a team willing to pay a reasonable portion of Kemp’s remaining contract the Dodgers probably would have traded him by now. Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports illustrated the point on Friday:
Someone close to the situation suggested the Dodgers have targeted “three or four” potential landing spots, though it isn’t immediately known what they are. One rival said their best hope may be to include some very good prospects along with Kemp. One rumor had Texas as a potential spot, but someone close to their situation responded “probably not.”
Kemp is limited to the corner outfield — “Where he’s at physically with the ankle, he looks good,” Roberts said. “But he’s not running like he was 3-5 years ago.” — now and his defensive numbers the last few years have been so bad his best destination is probably to an American League team where he can be the designated hitter. That further limits the Dodgers’ trade possibilities.
If the Dodgers can’t trade Kemp, who had negative Wins Above Replacement over the last three seasons, they have two options: release him and eat the remaining money owed, or keep him around and hope for the best from Kemp, who must accept a more limited role than he’s ever been used to.
Veteran Braves beat writer David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution chronicled the Kemp trade from Atlanta’s perspective, which sounded a lot more like addition by subtraction:
Kemp was great back in 2011, and for significant stretches since then, but now he struggles with hamstring and other leg issues that certainly aren’t helped any by the fact that he is carrying a lot of extra weight. He put on an alarming amount of pounds during the 2017 season after reporting to camp in good shape compared to the overweight condition in which he arrived when he first joined the Braves in 2016.
And frankly, the Braves needed to trade him now not just because he had degenerated into arguably the worst defensive left fielder in baseball at this point, but also because he gave off a lot of bad signs that you simply don’t want in any clubhouse, much less in a clubhouse with impressionable young players and a team that’s trying to move forward in its rebuilding project after three difficult seasons.
Roberts last spoke with Kemp a week ago.
“I just wanted to reiterate to him to be open minded. It’s a different clubhouse than when he left. There’s a lot of good players,” Roberts said. “He assured me that all he wants is to be on a winner. Coming back to Los Angeles is a dream he never thought could happen again, so he’s thrilled.”
Dodgers pitchers and catchers report to spring training on Feb. 13, with position players set to report on Feb. 18.
So for now Kemp is still a Dodger and is in the club’s plans at this very moment just like Dee Gordon was the club’s second baseman at the winter meetings in 2014, or “I see Adrian [Gonzalez] contributing” from the winter meetings in 2017.
Kemp is here, until he isn’t.
“To have Matt back is awesome. I’m looking forward to seeing him in spring training. Whatever happens, happens. That’s the position that the front office has to take,” Jansen said. “But I think he can help us tremendously. He’s in great shape. He lost a lot of weight.”
From your lips to an American League team’s ears.