Los Angeles Dodgers v Oakland Athletics

One name consistently flying around in trade rumors is that of Matt Kemp. So frequent is his name popping up in trade coverage that his agent, former big leaguer Dave Stewart, says he “expects” the Dodgers outfielder to be moved.

The Dodgers current roster features too many outfielders and not enough places to play them. Not only are there too many fielders, there are too many dollars tied up in that overcrowded outfield. After taking on the expensive contract of Carl Crawford and the explosive debut of Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers “old guard” suddenly counted two bodies for one spot.

This isn’t ordinarily a bad thing – too much depth in one spot is a great way to address shortcomings in other places on the diamond. But the Dodgers free-spending ways complicate this matter, as both Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier both signed pricey extensions before reaching free agency.

Of the two, Matt Kemp remains the more desirable option. Or does he?

Matt Kemp is probably a better player than Andre Ethier. I say “probably” because it is getting increasingly difficult to tell what kind of production Matt Kemp will offer in the future – without even considering the six years and $120 remaining on his contract.

Matt Kemp certainly was a better baseball player. There aren’t many outfielders who have as much talent as Kemp. Not many players can put together a season as complete as Kemp’s 2011, which really ranks as one of the best in recent memory.

Here is the full list of center fielders to put up a 150 OPS+, hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in a single season.

Rk Yrs From To Age
1 Mike Trout 1 2012 2012 20-20 Ind. Seasons
2 Matt Kemp 1 2011 2011 26-26 Ind. Seasons
3 Eric Davis 1 1987 1987 25-25 Ind. Seasons
4 Willie Mays 1 1957 1957 26-26 Ind. Seasons
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/10/2013.

That is not a long list and Matt Kemp’s name is on it. Players capable of putting up seasons like this are hot, hot commodities, one would think.

The problem with Matt Kemp, if you’re a potential trade partner, is you don’t want to pay for past performance. It’s great that he put everything together for one season but what are the odds he does it again?

The last two seasons of Matt Kemp’s career are marred by injuries, first to his shoulder and then his ankle. It was a hamstring injury that tripped Kemp up early in 2012, putting him on the shelf after just 36 games, though he sported a .355/.444/.719 line with 12 home runs at the time. The leg was slow to heal and Kemp then injured his shoulder in September, all but bringing his season to a close.

The injuries continued in 2013, first the hamstring flared up again and then an ankle ailment cost him two months. Both the shoulder and ankle were bothersome enough that the Dodgers center fielder underwent surgery on both in October – the second straight offseason requiring a procedure on his wonky left shoulder. Always good to get in and get things right but the recovery process could end up delaying the start of Kemp’s 2014 season.

We can explain away bad seasons after injuries but what guarantees do we have that he will ever be the same player again?

A player three years older playing on a rebuilt shoulder and a troublesome ankle – is he likely to reach those high heights of 2011? Beyond health concerns, there are performance indicators that suggest 2011 was a one-off career year as well.

Kemp received 24 free passes that season, juicing up his walk rate over 10% for the first time in his career (his 50 unintentional walks bring him closer to a 7.5% walk rate, right around his career numbers.) He also hit more fly balls (and more home runs on those fly balls)( while besting his generally high BABIP rates in 2011, not to mention a contact rate in decline.

In 2013 his strikeouts soared and his power dropped. Did his shoulder woes reduce his bat speed? His lack of power against fastballs is noticeable, as his the rate at which he pulled heat. Perhaps a player starting his swing a little earlier to compensate for, you know, other things? Questions remain about his ability to play center field well enough to move towards a corner spot.

It isn’t to diminish his accomplishments but trying to establish the likelihood of Kemp returning to a similar level of production, since his record contract extension pays him a superstar wage. Paying a right fielder nearly $22 million a season through 2019?

Obviously the Dodgers would pay some freight to help any potential deal along but the big question remains: how much of Matt Kemp is left? Is a guy yet to play his age-29 season really that much of risk? This is a rare collection of tools and skills, a player with a demonstrated history of not only good play but GREAT play at the big league level.

Somebody, given the chance, will jump at the opportunity to add Matt Kemp to their club. The Dodgers don’t have to make a deal, as the only other viable center field option is Scott Van Slyke, which is to say they have no other center field options. It will take a serious deal for the Dodgers to unload Kemp, though Jonah Keri suggests that after a few years of blowing their brains out on contracts, resuming business as a “normal” baseball team has always been the plan.

Normal teams must restock the prospect pipeline. Normal teams take opportunities to get out from under $130 million worth of contacts if given half a chance. The Dodgers know Matt Kemp and Matt Kemp’s medical records better than anyone. They’ve been in the “Matt Kemp business” since he was an 18-year old out of an Oklahoma high school. If the Dodgers look at the money they owe him and think they’re better off without him, why wouldn’t another team believe them?

Hard to believe a player of Kemp’s pedigree has become such a gamble but any team dealing for him invites enormous risk to come along for the ride. Risk is fine, provided you have a decent idea of the potential rewards. Two shoulder surgeries, a bad ankle and a bad hamstring obscure that vision considerably.