The Only Bad Matt Kemp Trade Is A Bad Matt Kemp Trade

Matt Kemp trade rumors seem to grow every day, and people are freaking out about it, even though this happens every year and nothing ever comes of it. While I still think it’s more likely than not that Kemp stays in Los Angeles, I’ll admit that this being the first time the new front office has had an opportunity to listen on offers lends an added air of uncertainty to the proceedings.

That being said, I do find that too many people are insisting that any Kemp trade is a mistake — which is insane to say about any player when you don’t even know what an actual deal would look like — or that the team needs “right-handed power” to win. Obviously, the potential of losing two of your three most talented hitters in one winter isn’t ideal, but “right-handed power” isn’t a check box on the list of things a winning team must have, and the difficulty in finding it is actually somewhat of a myth.

What matters is overall value, regardless of how you get it. If Kemp’s playing time was given to, say, Joc Pederson, and he was considerably better on defense than Kemp (which isn’t hard to do) and on the bases while being a step down on offense, you might have approximated similar value, regardless of handedness or how it was derived. (I’m just using Pederson as an example, that could apply to any player.) You don’t win with offense, specifically. You win by scoring more runs than the opponent. As the light-hitting Royals just reminded us all, there’s many ways to get to that goal.

So no, it’s not ludicrous to entertain the idea of trading Kemp. However, most of what I’m seeing in the public sphere as far as his return seems to be missing his mark, with a pretty even split between two extremes:

  1. Dodger fans who think Kemp’s hot second half in 2014 wipes away more than two full years of injury-fueled mediocrity and forget how awful of a defensive outfielder he is, and
  2. Non-Dodger fans and/or media who ignore Kemp’s second half (based on what I believe to be real changes to health and mechanics) entirely and consider him to be akin to a Ryan Howard-esque salary dump.

Both sides are wrong. The truth is, as it always lies, in the middle, and when I tweeted last night that if a Kemp trade were made, both fanbases would hate it, I meant that. Dodger fans will hate that he’s gone and what’s coming in return. The new team’s fans would hate that they gave up anything for what they see as a broken-down, expensive player. I had one fan say to me on Twitter last night that if the rumored Kemp to San Diego trade is real, it has to include Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, and Yasmani Grandal. Setting aside why in the world the Padres would decimate their rotation for what is clearly a win-now player, that is wildly overvaluing Kemp’s trade value. (Separately, if a trade like this does happen, I don’t look forward to endless arguments with Dodger fans who think Grandal is terrible because “batting average.”)

Remember two things. First, that as excited as I was about his second-half progress, Kemp from 2015 onward is not the same player who signed that extension. At the time, he was a durable iron man with enough speed to outrun his mistakes in center field. Now, he’s entering his 30s with several years of multiple serious injuries behind him, and he’s absolutely not a center fielder. He might not even be an outfielder, and while you can argue about his levels of not-good in the field, we can all agree he’s not a plus. If he can just be adequate, I’ll be happy with that.

Second, remember that star trades rarely return what people expect them to. We’ve talked a bit about what Cole Hamels‘ actual value is, and he’s one of the very best pitchers in baseball with a contract that’s very similar to Kemp’s. If the Phillies are going to have difficulty getting top return for their ace, what makes people think that Kemp, coming off what was largely a disastrous 2012-14, is worth more? What makes people think that other teams are going to simply assume, “oh, he’s fully healthy and will never get hurt again.” You can point to “it’s harder to find a hitter than a pitcher right now,” and that counts for something, but only a little. The issue, really, is that if Kemp were a free agent, he wouldn’t get the contract he has right now, and not only is he not a free agent, teams would be asked to include actual talent for the right to pay him more than he’s worth, pending how much the Dodgers would pay down. That’s a significant issue.

As Dave Cameron wrote this week at FanGraphs, people are far more disappointed by the return for a trade including a star than not. His method is somewhat subjective, but it gets the point across well. Think about how many people were shocked by the Josh Donaldson trade, or the Justin Upton trade, or the David Price trade, or the Doug Fister trade, or the Roy Halladay trade, or name a Cliff Lee trade. When people like a trade that sends away a star, it’s because a very elite top prospect is coming back, like Wil Myers or Addison Russell or Zack Wheeler or Noah Syndergaard. Matt Kemp is not bringing back a very elite top prospect.

Ultimately, I don’t think much has changed on this front from when we talked about this over the summer. Matt Kemp is valuable. He’s less valuable than Dodger fans think. He’s more valuable than other sources claim. He’s much more valuable in the Dodger lineup than he is as a trade piece, and if you have to eat millions to make a deal work, just do it for Andre Ethier and be done with it. But mostly, don’t worry about it until there’s something to worry about. We go through this every year.

About Mike Petriello

Mike Petriello
Mike writes about lots of baseball in lots of places, and right now that place is MLB.com.