Dodgers: The Matt Kemp Roller Coaster Rides Again

SAN DIEGO, CA - APRIL 16: Matt Kemp
SAN DIEGO, CA - APRIL 16: Matt Kemp /

When the Dodgers reacquired their one-time offensive leader over the off-season, few but the most sentimental Dodger fans could have realistically envisioned he’d still be with them to start Spring Training.

There was no pretense about what the Matt Kemp trade was about.  This was a pure salary dump to reset the Luxury Tax penalties before next year’s monster free agent class, potentially headlined by their own once-in-a-generation pitcher, Clayton Kershaw.  At its most basic, it was simply an accounting move.  We’ll give you one year of bad contracts (and throw in Charlie Culberson as a sweetener!).  You give us roughly the same amount back, but spread over two years so we can squeeze under the salary cap.  It was as simple as that.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop…

As expected, Atlanta released Adrian Gonzalez the next day.  Matt Kemp would surely meet a similar fate within days.  By all accounts, the Dodgers were upfront with Kemp about what their intentions were.  It seemed like the only question was going to be whether the Dodgers could package Kemp with a prospect to free up some additional money to make a hard run at Yu Darvish or whether they were just going to bite the bullet and DFA him to free up a roster spot.  They were rumored to be actively shopping Kemp, but no one was biting.  As Spring Training drew closer and closer, the expectation shifted to thoughts that a decent Spring might drum up some minimal interest in Kemp and a bad Spring would bring his second tenure with the Dodgers to an ignoble end.

When the first game of the Cactus League rolled around, Matt Kemp was still in tow.  A 40-pound lighter Matt Kemp who was said to be in his best physical shape in years.  A Matt Kemp who seemed to want a second chance, maybe to finish unfinished business from his first stint in Dodger Blue.  At the time I remember thinking to myself: What if Kemp doesn’t have a bad Spring or even a decent Spring?  What if he crushes it?  Do the Dodgers look to trade at a potential short-term high?  Or do they get seduced into seeing if Kemp can channel some of the old magic and help them get their first World Championship since 1988?

Little did they know…

As I said, when the Dodgers reacquired Matt Kemp during the off-season, only the most sentimental Dodger fans could have realistically thought he would still be on the team by Spring Training.  Even fewer would have expected him to make the Opening Day roster, let alone be an everyday player.  At best, he might end up as the right-handed part of a left-field platoon with a healthy Andrew Toles or a revitalized Joc Pederson.  Maybe as a big right-handed bat off the bench in a high leverage situation against a tough reliever.  But even the most sentimental fools couldn’t have dreamed of what was to come.

Return of The Beast

With 64 games in the books, Matt Kemp has appeared in 62 of them, and his 200 ABs rank him third on the team.  But he’s not just an everyday player; he’s arguably been their best player all year.  Trademark issues aside, he’s been in Beast Mode for virtually the whole season.  He not only leads the team in most offensive categories but his name is also strewn all over the NL Leader Boards: .340 Batting Average (3rd); .570 Slugging (1st); .940 OPS (5th); 156 Adjusted OPS+ (3rd); Tied for 9th with 16 Doubles and 40 RBIs.

He leads all position players on the team and is tied with Ross Stripling for the overall team lead in Fangraph’s version of WAR (1.9)  His 10 HRs are just two off the team lead.  He is also among the top hitters in the National League with runners on base and is second with runners in scoring position – areas that have been problematic for the Dodgers in recent years.  In short, Matt Kemp has been the saving grace for the Dodgers for much of the season so far.  If the Dodgers continue their recent run of success, you have to start wondering if you’re going to start hearing the old M-V-P chants echoing through Dodger Stadium again.  What was the Vegas line on this?

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The missing piece?

Looking back,I can’t help but torture myself with the “What If” game.  What if the 2017 Dodgers had 2018 Matt Kemp?  It always felt like they were missing that big middle-of-the-order right-handed bat.  It seemed like the Dodgers were shuffling players in and out of that 5 slot all season last year without anyone really taking ownership of it.  What if Kemp had been playing left and hitting 5th behind Bellinger last year?  I think that would have been something to see.  Given how close they came, maybe that would have been the piece that put them over the top.  It certainly had to be better than Curtis Granderson (and his woeful 1 for 15 postseason that got him left off the World Series roster)!  But I suppose I digress.

Back to reality…

The Dodgers are still in the thick of the race for the NL West.  Well, pretty much everyone is still in the thick of the race for the NL West (except maybe the Padres and even they’re not that far out), but that’s not the point.  The point is that the Dodgers have been playing over .735 baseball for their last 20-plus games while the rest of the West has generally just languished during that time.  The Dodgers dug a pretty deep hole for themselves, but it seems like they managed to survive it, albeit with a little help from their hapless division rivals.  They are now in sole possession of second place, and trail Arizona by a mere three games.

Matt Kemp has been a huge part of the Dodger’s success in 2018.  If the Dodgers can manage to get the rest of their team healthy and playing at the level they are capable of, they still have a good chance to win the division.  The Dodgers came so painfully close to winning it all in 2017, so maybe with Kemp’s help, 2018 will finally be that elusive “Next Year” that Dodger fans always seem to be just waiting for since their days in Brooklyn.

Next: The Dodgers exploding run differential

Of course, this is pure speculation at this point, as three weeks don’t necessarily translate into a full-blown resurgence.  But I think that deep down most Dodger fans would love if somehow Matt Kemp was the one who helped put the Dodgers over the top.  So at least for the time being, buckle up and enjoy the ride.