LOS ANGELES – When the Dodgers made their biggest move of the offseason last month, they were essentially playing ‘hot potato’ with the Atlanta Braves, swapping bad contracts with the intention of keeping them moving.
With pitchers and catchers set to report for spring training in just over two weeks, the Dodgers are still holding a $43.5 million spud.
“He’s going to be one of our guys in camp,” Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi said Saturday of Matt Kemp, acquired from the Braves in exchange for Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir in mid-December. “We’ve got a little bit of an open competition in left field, and he’s going to be part of that competition.”
Well, Kemp wasn’t a part of any of the Dodgers’ Community Tour events this week nor was he invited to Saturday’s FanFest event at Dodger Stadium. Kemp remains on the Dodgers’ roster in name only despite Zaidi’s public assertion that “as of now” he expects to see the former All-Star, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner back in the uniform he was wearing when he won those awards.
“I think we knew it was a possibility,” Zaidi said of not being able to move the 33-year-old Kemp. “We haven’t made any secret of the fact that that trade was primarily financially motivated. But a motivated Matt Kemp can help a lot of teams in baseball, including us. I think it’s our responsibility to keep our options open and let this play out and if he proves to be somebody who can help us on the field that’s what everybody wants.”
The echo of a sales pitch can be heard in Zaidi’s statement.
Some of Kemp’s former offensive skills still remain. He did hit 19 home runs in 115 games for the Braves last season. But he has also been plagued by leg injuries and was woefully out of shape at times with the Braves and San Diego Padres – the two are not unrelated – to the point that he ranked as one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball last season. Zaidi’s efforts over the past month have no doubt been directed primarily at his counterparts in the American League where Kemp could have some utility as a DH.
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen is one of only seven players still with the team from Kemp’s last season in Los Angeles (2014) and the two have been in touch this winter, taking in a Lakers game together. Jansen said Kemp understands the team didn’t really acquire him because they had a role for him “but he can help us.”
“I understand what the Dodgers are doing, trying to go under the luxury tax to try to reset. It’s totally understandable,” Jansen said Saturday. “To have Matt back — if it’s a situation where he gets to stay here — is exciting. We have confidence in what Andrew (Friedman) and Farhan are going to do. The front office is going to do what they can to put us in a great situation to hopefully win a championship multiple times.
“To have Matt back is awesome. I’m looking forward to seeing him in spring training. But whatever happens, happens. That’s the position that the front office has to take. But I think he can help us tremendously. He’s in great shape. He lost a lot of weight. We all know what Matt Kemp can do.”
What the Dodgers could do with Kemp – and they have tried – is package him with one or more prospects from their rich farm system, enticing another team to take him off their hands that way. Kemp’s decline and a winter market saturated with outfielders (some younger, many better) are making even that difficult for the Dodgers to do, possibly leaving them with a $21.75 million Franklin Gutierrez on their hands – an aging platoon outfielder with limited defensive ability.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he has been in contact with Kemp as recently as a week ago, talking to him about this possibility.
“Obviously he’s in a situation where he’s in flux as far as what the organization expects of him,” said Roberts, the Padres’ bench coach during the 2015 season (Kemp’s only full season in San Diego). “But my thing to him was … be open-minded. It’s a different clubhouse than when he left. There’s a lot of good players. He just assured me all he wants to do is to be on a winner. The opportunity to come back to Los Angeles is something he never dreamed could happen again. So he is thrilled.
“As far as the stuff I can’t control, he can’t control – we just try to focus on what’s happening right now. Right now, he’s a Dodger and I’m excited to have him on the roster.”
Indeed, it is “a different clubhouse” – in no small part because of Kemp’s subtraction from it.
One of the first moves made by Friedman after taking over the Dodgers was to trade Kemp to San Diego, jettisoning one prominent piece of a toxic clubhouse atmosphere. That culture has been thoroughly made over in the three seasons since but Kemp’s reputation remains intact. His bad influence in the Braves’ clubhouse is believed to have been a motivating factor for the Braves behind last month’s deal.
If Kemp somehow does don a Dodger uniform again, both Roberts and Zaidi insist that won’t be an issue.
“No. I think our culture is very strong,” Zaidi said. “He has relationships here and there’s trust and history. So — we’re not worried about that.”
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