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Matt Kemp is back with the Dodgers, looking for a fresh start

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers-Workout Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX — It was flashback Tuesday at Camelback Ranch, with old friend Matt Kemp returning to a Dodgers clubhouse he grew up in, against all odds and with something to prove.

“I’m just as surprised as you are,” Kemp told reporters at his locker.

Kemp was one of several position players in camp early, well before Sunday’s reporting date. That he is even in a Dodgers uniform again at all was not to be expected. The Dodgers acquired Kemp in December from the Braves in a trade that was more about salary restructuring than anything.

“We haven’t made any secret of the fact that this trade was financially motivated,” general manager Farhan Zaidi said in January.

The Dodgers dealt Kemp at the winter meetings in 2014, just three years into his eight-year, $160 million contract that was the largest deal for a position player in National League history at the time he was signed. The return trade to Los Angeles was unexpected, to say the least.

“I was eating lunch when my friends when my agent called me. He’s like, ‘Hey you’ve been traded,’ and I asked where,” Kemp recalled. “He just started laughing. ‘It’s the Dodgers,’ and I said, ‘Stop lying.’”

Kemp in theory was supposed to be traded by now. And he still very well might be dealt away, if the Dodgers can find a taker for at least some of his $43 million remaining in the final two years of his contract, to further maneuver under the $197 million competitive balance tax threshold.

“They were up front with me and told me they didn’t know what was going to happen,” Kemp said Tuesday.

Kemp is no longer the star he once was and joins a crowded outfield mix, vying for playing time in left field with Kiké Hernandez, Joc Pederson and Andrew Toles.

“I don’t think anybody knows what their role is right now. I got a lot left in me. I can help this team win,” Kemp said. “I came to camp feeling good, feeling strong. I’m ready to go.”

Kemp also came to camp having dropped a ton of weight, with 40 pounds the number thrown around on Tuesday.

“He came into camp in amazing shape,” manager Dave Roberts said. “This is the Matt Kemp I remember when he was having an MVP-type year with the Dodgers.”

Since leaving the Dodgers Kemp has still been a slightly above average hitter, hitting .269/.310/.470, a 109 OPS+ with 77 home runs, though he has regressed on defense. He has been 50 runs below average in Defensive Runs Saved from 2015-17, 29 runs below average in Total Zone Rating, and 40.6 runs below average in Ultimate Zone Rating, the latter the worst in baseball by 13 runs.

“If you look at the metrics, which isn’t everything, the defense has dropped off, from being a Gold Glove-caliber defender,” Roberts said. “To perform defensively and on both sides of the ball is a priority for us.”

Roberts pointed out Kemp being lighter should help him in the outfield, and the Dodgers’ positioning would improve his defense as well, though honestly this was much more the kind of blind optimism the first day of spring training brings.

“The natural ability to read a ball off the bat, Matt has that, so I expect a huge uptick in the metrics this year,” Roberts said.

A new and improved Kemp, after all, would also be easier to trade. But there has to be a compelling reason, too. Yes, the Dodgers are trying to avoid exceeding the payroll threshold this season to reset the luxury tax, but moving him for the sake of moving him for only minimal salary relief doesn’t make much sense either.

Might as well see what you can get from a motivated Kemp, looking for something to prove.

If the Dodgers would need to attach a prospect to get a team to pay more of Kemp’s salary, the cost steepens, so it better be for some other improvement somewhere. The Dodgers certainly tried to retain Yu Darvish, who signed with the Cubs, but in this cold hot stove market there are still several other pitchers available if the Dodgers are still looking to upgrade the rotation.

Jake Arrieta is one of those free agents still out there, even if it wasn’t him walking with his Cubs bag into the Dodgers clubhouse on Tuesday morning.

So for now Kemp remains a Dodger, as surprising as it is. And now that he has put on the uniform again, it seems more real. And that can change at any moment.

“As of right now this is where I plan on being,” Kemp said Tuesday, perfectly capturing his roster status.

Kemp is back in the Camelback Ranch clubhouse for the first time in four years. Of the 61 other Dodgers in big league camp, only eight were there the last time Kemp was around — Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Yasiel Puig, Justin Turner, Pederson, Hyun-jin Ryu, Pedro Baez and Yimi Garcia.

“I’ve seen him at his best. I know how good he can be,” Kershaw said. “I know he still has the ability to play baseball really well, and hope he gets a chance to prove it here.”

“I need to prove to everybody I can still play defense and help the team win,” Kemp said. “Of course we all have something to prove. Every year the stats start at zero. We all start fresh.”