Matt Kemp defies odds, will start the season with Dodgers

Earlier today, Andrew Toles was optioned to Triple-A Oklahoma City from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Toles showed some very nice power this spring, hitting .283/.286/.566 overall after returning from a torn ACL early in 2017. This is just a day or two after fellow Dodger outfielder Trayce Thompson was designated for assignment due to having no options remaining. Despite the overall impressive spring from Toles, the Dodgers opted to go with four other outfielders. Although this is disappointing for fans of Toles, this will allow him to play every day in the minors and he will be the first one recalled if there are any injuries in Los Angeles.

As far as the four other outfielders that remain in the majors, right field will be manned by Yasiel Puig, center field by Chris Taylor, and then a combination of Joc Pederson and Matt Kemp will take left field.

  • Yasiel Puig has been a mainstay in the Dodgers lineup, save for a short Triple-A stint in late 2016. Puig is coming off of a season hitting .263/.346/.487 and a career-high 28 home runs, securing his spot with ease.
  • Chris Taylor, a breakout star in 2017 hitting .288/.354/.496, took over center field halfway through the season and never gave it up.
  • Joc Pederson, although struggling for much of last season hitting .212/.331/.407 with subpar defense, has a career line of .222/.345/.435 and back to back 3-or-so fWAR seasons before in 2015 and 2016. Not to mention his incredible World Series run smashing 3 home runs while hitting .333/.400/.944.

None of the three above players are at all surprising to see make the opening day roster for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The name that stands out here is the former fan-favorite and MVP-runner up, Matt Kemp.

The Departure and Return of Matt Kemp

Matt Kemp was drafted in the 6th round by the Dodgers all the way back in 2003. Kemp made his MLB debut just three years later in the middle of the 2006 season at just 21 years old. He played nine seasons in Los Angeles, becoming not only an MVP-runner up in his excellent 2011 season, but the best home-grown Dodgers position player since Mike Piazza. In his nine seasons with the Dodgers, Kemp hit .292/.349/.495 with 182 home runs and stole 170 bases in 1116 games.

Injuries and age started to catch up to Kemp, and by the 2014 off-season, rumors were swirling about the Dodgers looking to trade Kemp and his large contract due to declining defensive abilities. During the 2014 season, Kemp sat out a week because then-manager Don Mattingly wanted to move Kemp out of right field into left field. Kemp’s defense was slipping and it was becoming obvious. Finally, by December 12th, Kemp was traded out of Los Angeles sent down the 5 Freeway to San Diego, the bulk of the return being catcher Yasmani Grandal.

San Diego

As a Padre, Kemp showed some flashes of his old self, but was just a bit above average with the bat hitting .264/.301/.462 with 46 home runs and the worst outfield defense in the MLB. After just a season and a half in San Diego, the Braves swapped another former Dodger in Hector Olivera for Kemp in the middle of the 2016 season.

Atlanta the “Baseball Town”

The trade to Atlanta was a welcome one for Kemp, who grew up a Braves fan. His excitement level was so high that he told reporters “I’ve never really played in a baseball town before. So, I am excited about that.” This was something that did not sit well many Dodger fans, after playing nearly a decade in Los Angeles.

Kemp really seemed to take to Atlanta, hitting .301/.349/.536 with 24 home runs and 35 doubles in his first 498 plate appearances from joining the team until mid-June of 2017. After this Kemp fought injuries and put on a lot of weight, floundering the remainder of the season hitting just .223/.263/.355 with 7 home runs and 3 doubles in 210 plate appearances. Overall for the Braves, Kemp hit .278/.324/.482 with 31 home runs and 38 doubles and slightly improved defense from his time with the Padres.

The ‘Charlie Culberson’ Trade

On the morning of December 16th of last year, the baseball world was shocked to hear that the Dodgers were trading Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, and Charlie Culberson to the Braves in exchange for Matt Kemp. For many people, this was a very puzzling move. While the Dodgers were clearly trying to solidify the first base spot for 2017 Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger, it wasn’t originally clear for some why Kemp was coming back in the deal.

What the deal really was for the Dodgers was a way to lower their payroll this season at the expense of going up for 2019. By shedding Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, and Brandon McCarthy’s salaries, this deal put them below the tax salary cap allowing them to save millions in taxes. As well, with an already crowded outfield of Yasiel Puig, Chris Taylor, Joc Pederson, Andrew Toles, Trayce Thompson, and Alex Verdugo, there was no room for Kemp. The plan was to shed all of the other salaries right away and then focus on moving Kemp before the start of Spring training.

Well, that was the plan, anyway.

Matt Kemp’s Return to Los Angeles

It seems as though it was the intention of the Dodgers to trade Kemp to lower their payroll, there never seemed to be any takers. There were stories all winter and early Spring about their efforts, but nothing ever came to be. By the start of March, the Dodgers’ choices were to either release Kemp and pay his entire remaining salary, or give him a look in Arizona and see what he can still do.

Things started off very well with the news that Kemp dropped 40 pounds in the offseason, putting him back at his pre-injury playing weight from 2012 when he was at the top of his game. Perhaps even better, Kemp appears to be getting along in the clubhouse, where that was said to be a bit of a problem his final season in Los Angeles before. Kenley Jansen has called Kemp and Yasiel Puig “brothers for life”, which is a stark contrast from previous seasons.

After getting back into shape and mending fences in the locker room, some of the concerns of the last few seasons surrounding Kemp seemed to be melting away. Kemp had always shown talent, more so with just his bat the last few years, but teams may have been staying away due to these concerns. It looks as though a newly determined Kemp is doing his best to change opinions on that front. The next step would be to prove himself on the field.

Spring Training and a Crowded Left Field

Without finding a trading partner, Kemp stayed on the Dodgers roster. Although he was a former Dodger, and a former MVP candidate, the left field spot was not just going to be given to him. The Dodgers had Joc Pederson with a fairly good track record the last three years, as well as a red-hot World Series showing. They had a returning Andrew Toles who has impressed with his athleticism in small sample sizes in both 2016 and 2017, but is coming back from a torn ACL. They had Trayce Thompson who is out of options and showed a lot of power in 2016. The Dodgers even had a top 50 prospect in Alex Verdugo fighting for left field.

Despite the high level of competition for left field, Kemp’s offense shone through early, hitting .364/.400/.788 with 4 home runs in his first 33 at-bats of the spring. Kemp’s defense was always going to be a problem, as he’s just not the player he was back in 2009 or 2011 when he won a couple of Gold Gloves. However, Kemp shedding 40 pounds will likely help his league-worst defense, and the bat is what is getting him noticed.

By the end of Spring training, Kemp ended up hitting .263/.317/.561 with 5 home runs and securing himself a spot on the opening day roster.

Kemp’s Got Dodger Fans Thinking of 2011

In the final Spring Training game against the Angels last night, Kemp hit a high home run to straightaway centerfield, taking the lead and ending up the game-winning home run.

This home run has Dodger fans thinking of Kemp’s magical 2011 MVP-runner up season, with his ability to hit monster home runs to center field as we had seen so many times that season.

His physique after losing 40 pounds even has him looking like his old self, not the player he’s been with San Diego or Atlanta.

The difference between late 2017 season Matt Kemp and the Kemp of today is night and day, with some people saying the picture on the left is from 2011 and not from 2018.

Matt Kemp is Doing the Improbable

When Matt Kemp was traded away from the Dodgers in December of 2014, no one ever imagined he would ever wear a Dodgers uniform again. Why would they? He was expensive, getting older, and couldn’t field. Yet, three years and four days later when the trade was announced bringing Matt Kemp back to Los Angeles, there was a small glimmer of a hope.

The reports were all that the Dodgers would either trade Kemp or release him, so it seemed for the remaining Kemp fans out there that all hope was lost. Those fans were just waiting for the news that Kemp had been traded for a sack of beans. They were just waiting to hear that Kemp had been released. Even with near 100% certainly of one of these things happening, they never did.

It is said that you can never come home again, but in last night’s game against the Angels, Matt Kemp wore a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform with the number 27 on the back and took Dodger fans back in time. With the news of Toles being optioned to Triple-A Oklahoma City, it was now guaranteed that Matt Kemp will not only be on the Dodgers 25 man roster on opening day, but will likely start in left field.

The Dodgers have seen some stars leave for other teams, such as Mike Piazza or Adrian Beltre, but I cannot recall one ever coming back. For a dedicated group of Dodger fans, this will be a gift that we never imagined would come. It was something we may have dreamed about, but never truly thought would come to pass. In about 21 hours from now, Matt Kemp will be introduced at Dodger Stadium and will shortly take the field just after for the first time as a Dodger in four seasons.

By doing so, he will have defied all of the odds and done so in the face of everyone saying it could never ever happen.