Matt Kemp Is More Valuable In The Dodger Lineup Than Elsewhere

The Dodgers don’t play today. The trade deadline is on Thursday. You’re damned right we’re going to talk about Matt Kemp. More than once, actually, because Brim will be around later today with a math-based look at whether Kemp is still a productive offensive player. (Spoiler alert: he is.) Me, well, I just want to talk about the idea of trading Kemp at all.

I suppose I’m forced to start with the hilarious business from this weekend that the Red Sox were “considering” a Jon Lester for Kemp trade, which is laughable on its face. Lester, you may have noticed, is not only one of the best pitchers in baseball, he’s probably the best starting pitcher available at the deadline now that David Price seems like he might stay put in Tampa, and I say “available” knowing that the Sox might just hang on to Lester and try to resign him after the year. I still believe that Boston makes for a very good trade partner with the Dodgers, as I said a few weeks ago, but not like this. Red Sox fans nearly keeled over at the mere thought of it. They weren’t wrong to, of course. You don’t get a top starting pitcher for a player with negative trade value unless you’re adding a considerable amount to go with him, whether that’s young talent or endless truckloads of money or both.

I know, “negative trade value” sounds harsh, but it’s true. Last week at ESPN, Dan Szymborski ran the numbers and projects Kemp to be a roughly-average player over the next few years. There’s value in “average” — it does, of course, mean that half of everyone else included is worse than you are — but you can get an average player for a hell of a lot less than the $114m or so that Kemp still has coming to him, and without the associated injury concerns. A good litmus test for “does this player have trade value” is simply “would anyone claim him on waivers when the cost is merely the contract and no talent going in return,” and for Kemp, the answer is pretty obviously “no.”

Obviously, the Dodgers would eat a significant part of his contract in any deal, so that changes the economics a bit, but we probably need to resign ourselves to the fact that the deal that looked so, so good when Kemp signed in November 2011 — and looked even better a few months later when we saw what Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols got — is now an albatross. It’s not because of effort or lack of intelligence or anything that the lower humanity of some fans would infer, but simple injury. Kemp destroyed everyone for the first month of 2012 until he hurt his hamstring; he was very, very good later that summer before he ran into the wall in Colorado. Between the shoulder, the ankle, the hamstrings… we’re now into our third full season of a much more mediocre Matt Kemp. It’s sad, but I cringe at all the “well, if he’s healthy,” because, reality.

92topps_mattkempThat can still be useful, of course. Kemp’s 122 wRC+ is not only good — don’t let anyone quote raw numbers on him, because even though Kemp’s OPS is like 80 points lower than it was in 2009, the lower offensive environment across baseball makes it nearly as valuable — it’s just three percent below his career average. It’s equal to Buster Posey and Matt Carpenter; it’s better than Josh Donaldson, Chase Utley, Yoenis Cespedes and Ian Kinsler. I can’t see him ever being what he was in 2011, but that shouldn’t be the expectation. It should be whether Kemp can still be useful, and he can be if he can at least be not terrible in the outfield. There’s a reason he’s considered below-replacement this year, and it’s not because of his bat. It’s because he was such a disaster in center field, and it’s been only moderately better in the corners.

All of which means that Kemp still has value… but mostly to the Dodgers. He won’t earn his money, but this is the Dodgers, so it’s less important if he does. He can still be an above-average hitter, and an above-average player, if no longer a star. That’s a player you want in your lineup, especially if not having him means more Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford. (Yes, it might pave the way for Joc Pederson, just remember that there’s no guarantee that Pederson would even be more valuable than Scott Van Slyke right away, and would almost certainly provide more playing time for Ethier and Crawford.) It’s also a player who just won’t bring much back.

In the meantime, agent Dave Stewart and his wife can’t seem to stop going on and on about how Kemp still should be a center fielder, which is both not a thing that will ever, ever happen again and not something that should matter. (It’s not like Kemp is trying to keep his value up for a contract run, after all.) Frankly, being rid of them would be the main benefit to me of a Kemp trade. That, obviously, isn’t worth it alone, but keeping Kemp does assume that the rumblings we’ve heard of clubhouse unhappiness are relatively minor; I can certainly understand Kemp being unhappy at being shifted around the outfield, but it’s also not like he’s not playing every single day. (“Hey, shut up.” — Ethier.)

Now, I do think some Dodger fans go too far in the other direction, emotionally wanting to hang on to Kemp no matter what the actual trade might be. I don’t feel that way; if there’s a reasonable deal to be made for Kemp that isn’t just a massive contract dump, I’m not going to be automatically against it on principle. If it makes sense, then sure, send him packing and be happy to do it. I just have a hard time seeing that deal materialize, unless you’re so convinced that Kemp will suddenly start hitting like Adam Kennedy next year. The Red Sox aren’t giving you Lester for Kemp unless the Dodgers are paying for $90m of the deal and throwing in some talent. Kemp isn’t what he was, and he’s not worth the contract. He’s also not a Dan Uggla-sized hole in the lineup, either, and while it’s valid to say “but he’s replacement-level!” it’s also worth noting that he’s not going to get the chance to be a terrible center fielder any longer, which made up so much of that. For a team trying to win right now, Kemp is more valuable in the Dodger lineup than he’d be as a trade chip — and if Stewart doesn’t want Kemp to end up being a full-time designated hitter, which he’d surely be sooner than later in an AL city, maybe he’d be best off to quiet it down for a while.

About Mike Petriello

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