Baseball is, sadly, littered with players like Matt Kemp. Players with seemingly unlimited talent that could not be stopped by the mortal opposition, but who were felled by the weakness of the flesh, an endless torrent of tweaks, strains, and surgeries sapping their strength and vitality.
After hitting .324/.399/.586 with 39 HR and 126 RBI in 2011 -- finishing second to Ryan Bruan in the MVP voting -- the Dodgers locked Matt Kemp up with an 8 year, $160 million deal. It seemed prescient at the time -- a center fielder with power, speed, and good looks in Los Angeles--that's the stuff dreams are made of.
Alas, it was not to be, Kemp struggling with hamstring, shoulder, and ankle problems over the last two seasons, dragging his numbers down, first in a shortened 2012 (.303/.367/.538, 23 HR, 9 SB) and then a mess of 2013 where he never seemed to be able to power the ball to the gaps or stay on the field (.270/.328/.395, 6 HR, 9 SB). The player that got the Chavez Ravine crowd to chant "M-V-Kemp" was gone, replaced by the Puig Destroyers, the Clayton Kershaw Good Time Family Fun Band, and that weird cult devoted to AJ Ellis.
Earlier this offseason, there were rumors that the Dodgers were interested in trading Kemp, their outfield penciled full with Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford, and Yasiel Puig. The problem with that plan is Puig's rawness, which, according to sportswriters, is the greatest threat to American decency since low-rise jeans. Carl Crawford has his own injury concerns and has been roughly a league average player over the last three seasons, and Andre Ethier would best be utilized in a platoon, his career .644 OPS against southpaw pitching a glaring weakness.
The Dodgers may have bodies for each of their outfield positions, but save for Puig, none can match the potential explosiveness and game-changing talent that a healthy Kemp would offer. If there is such thing as a healthy Kemp.
So there's your question, what can the Dodgers expect next year? According to GM Ned Colletti, Kemp's rehab is going along well, though one scout says that Kemp will be "OK this year, but you'll get the best of Kemp the following year as he's recovered completely from the ankle." Which is exactly what you don't want to hear about your $20 million player, that he'll be OK, but man, get excited about him when he's 30 years old.
Unfortunately, if you look at Kemp's top comparable players on Baseball-Reference by age, he went from Carlos Beltran (still going strong) to Billy Williams (long, productive career, finishing with 426 HR), and...Raul Mondesi (peaked at 26 and flamed out at the end).
Most offensive production systems like ZiPS or Steamer peg Kemp to have a repeat of 2013 with a little more power, but they can only look at things like numbers. They can't judge the heart or soul of a man who may or may not be dating Khloe Kardashian.
And, if you believe in a multiverse theory (which I do, mostly because it's super cool, not because I know anything about physics), you know that each version of Matt Kemp is out there, somewhere, the superstar in one universe and the banged-up veteran in another.
So which one will this universe get?
Best Case Scenario
Kemp returns to the field feeling healthy and vibrant. His ankle and shoulder are completely healed, and he and Khloe Kardashian are in love, wedding bells not far behind. The American government announces that everyone gets a free hovercar that runs on nothing hamburger grease.
Kemp has an MVP campaign. Sure, the steals won't be so abundant, age and a tender ankle slowing Kemp up, but everything else the Dodgers could ever desire are in that package, Kemp and Puig leading the team as Southern California's new Bash Brothers.
Line: .320/.395/.570, 35 HR, 20 SB
Kemp returns, but the ankle is still tender, the shoulder causing his batting mechanics to fall a little out of whack. He struggles through the first couple weeks of the season, getting plenty of days off along the way. He starts to click as the weather warms up, and, though he lacks the same burst he once had, the ankle slowing him and the shoulder strength still lacking, Kemp remains an important component in the Dodgers lineup.
He may not be worth $20 million, but considering that the Dodgers are literally setting up their own US Mint, no one is too worried. Trade rumors flare up again as teams are eager to acquire the player in hopes that the MVP version is, like that crusty scout said, waiting in 2014.
Line: .290/.370/.530, 25 HR, 10 SB
A Bumpy Road
Kemp returns, but everything is off. The ankle is still tender, the shoulder still weak. He struggles through the first few weeks and then, while compensating for the ankle, he pulls a hamstring and is put on the DL. He returns a month later, the extra time off helping heal the injuries.
He still doesn't look quite right, but he manages to get through the year, playing around 120 games. The Dodgers will take it and hope for brighter days ahead.
Line: .260/.320/.450, 15 HR, 5 SB
The Darkest Timeline
Matt Kemp returns, but everything is off. The ankle hasn't healed properly and he starts the year on the DL. When he returns, he leaps into a wall to make a catch and re-injures his shoulder. Playing banged up, he's almost worthless, unable to run down balls in center or drive the ball at the plate. When he tears his hamstring in early June and is out for six more weeks, it's almost a relief that the team doesn't have to worry about putting him in the lineup.
When he returns, nothing is right -- he's tentative in the field and his mechanics are a mess. His love life crumbles around him. At the same time, a meteor strikes the city and widespread looting breaks out. The Dodgers flee the city and play the rest of their season in New Mexico, half of the team held captive by a marauding band of New LA kingpins. Matt Kemp is one of those players held back, forced to dance for their entertainment.
Line: .230/.290/.360, 5 HR, 0 SB
Like the lead character in Matt Christopher's The Kid That Only Hit Homers, Matt Kemp only hits homers. Sometimes, Kemp is frustrated because he'd like to run and steal bases, but, sadly, every time Kemp swings, the ball flies off his bat and into the crowd. Hell, sometimes he doesn't even swing and the ball will bounce off the catcher's mitt and land in the centerfield bleachers.
Until one day, that is, when Kemp realizes that he's not a real human being, he's simply the simulation of one existing in a hologram universe. How can he escape? Can a video game character find meaning in a meaningless universe? Find the answer to all of this and more in my upcoming e-book, Game Changers, available on Amazon later this spring.
Line: 1.000/1.000/4.000, 500 HR, 0 SB
Odds: .00001% (But there is a chance)
The point of all of this is that each of these Matt Kemps exist right now and, like Schroedinger's Cat*, we simply won't know until spring training starts and we can open the box, watching Kemp bat against live pitching.
The Dodgers are the best team to take on a risk like that, his salary little more than pennies in the team's infinite piggy bank. And with Kemp's trade value low, the Dodgers don't have much to lose out on, the lottery ticket of a healthy Kemp paying far more than they could get for him now.
Given Kemp's abilities, and that even last year, when everything that could go wrong, did, Kemp still finishing with an above-average OPS, I'd bet on the player. It looks like the Dodgers agree.
*Again, a concept I may not understand.
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