A healthy Matt Kemp will lead to a lot of smiling faces in Hollywood
Don't look now, but the Los Angeles Dodgers are starting to get healthy. The latest news, coming courtesy of the team on Twitter, has Matt Kemp getting ready to begin a rehab assignment this weekend.
Kemp was having an absolutely horrendous season before going on the disabled list May 30 with a hamstring injury. Actually his problems date back to last year, when he had a litany of physical problems that started with his hamstring and included his left shoulder.
Dating back to the second half of 2012, Kemp is hitting .268/.332/.377 in 515 plate appearances. He has hit just two home runs in 51 games this year. One of the main culprits is the shoulder Kemp had surgery on last year, at least according to Dodgers manager Don Mattingly.
Those are numbers that would be a surprise for a lot of great players, but especially Kemp when you consider from 2011 and the first half of 2012, he was the best player in the National League.
He should have won the MVP award two years ago, when he hit .324/.399/.586 with 39 home runs and 40 stolen bases, but because his team didn't make the playoffs, voters gave the honor to Milwaukee's Ryan Braun. Kemp followed that up by hitting 12 home runs in April of 2012, but he scuffled for most of the rest of the season due to various injuries.
For the Dodgers, this is the first step in a long process that could mean big things in the second half of the season.
It is going to be a long climb out of the National League West cellar, much less the postseason. But for all the things that have gone wrong with them so far in 2013, they are just 8.5 games out of the division lead.
Plus, in case you have somehow not heard, the Dodgers have found an exciting young talent in the outfield to pair with Kemp in Yasiel Puig. The 22-year-old Cuban sensation has taken the league by storm, hitting .452/.477/.790 in his first 16 games.
While Puig is obviously going to regress a lot in the coming weeks as pitchers figure out how to exploit the holes in his swing, like the fact that he will chase anything close to the strike zone, Kemp could make up for a lot of that drop in production by returning at full strength.
Therein lies the problem that no one knows how to answer. Just because Kemp is back, is he really back? Is he going to resemble the player from 2011? Or is the 2013 version we saw before the injury going to be around because his shoulder has messed with his swing so much?
If Kemp is back, things are going to get very interesting out West. The biggest problem that the Dodgers have had, aside from staying healthy, is scoring runs. They are 14th in the National League with 253 runs—only Miami is worse—and 13th in slugging percentage.
Even though the front office added more than $100 million to the payroll over the last 12 months with the additions of Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, who was having a good bounce-back season before landing on the DL with his own hamstring injury, Zack Greinke and Josh Beckett, this team hasn't come together as much as most expected it would.
But if you can plug Kemp back into the middle of the order, to go alongside Puig, suddenly that lineup looks a lot deeper and more formidable. Yet for all that Puig has brought to the Dodgers, they are just 7-9 in the 16 games since he was brought up.
Baseball is a funny game. Even though one player can electrify an entire city, as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper did with their respective teams last year, you need everyone firing on all cylinders if you are going to make the playoffs. One player is not going to change the course of an entire team.
So even if Kemp returns to full strength and Puig settles in as a .300 hitter with 20 home runs for the season, is that really enough to propel the Dodgers into the postseason?
If Matt Kemp returns at full strength, who is the favorite in the NL West the rest of the year?
The answer, unfortunately, is probably not.
Their lineup will look better with Puig, Kemp, Ramirez, Gonzalez and, when he returns, Crawford at the top, but Gonzalez still isn't hitting for a lot of over-the-wall power and Ramirez is an enigma that will likely never be figured out.
Beyond that, there are a lot of defensive replacements and bench players, like Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto, forced into starting roles because there is no depth at all on this roster. Their farm system is bare on position players, especially now that Puig has been brought up.
Also, you have to factor in the competition. Even though there is no reason to think the Rockies will continue to hang around .500 with that pitching staff, Arizona and San Francisco are very dangerous. The Giants, especially, since they have gotten nothing from Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum this season, yet still find themselves hanging around .500 thanks to an improved offense and one of the best bullpens in baseball.
The Diamondbacks have quietly taken control of the division with one of the deepest pitching rotations in baseball and an offense that, while not going to bash your head in, can push some runs across the board in a hurry.
And we must not forget the suddenly surging San Diego Padres, who have climbed over .500 and won eight of their last 10 games. I won't buy them as serious contenders right now, but they have done all this with Chase Headley really struggling and Jedd Gyorko on the DL. Their pitching staff, which ranks 13th in NL ERA despite playing in one of the best pitchers parks in baseball, will determine how far they go.
Even with some serious question marks facing all four teams in the NL West, that is still a lot of stiff competition in the division for the Dodgers and a lot of things they have to fix in a hurry before we can say they belong in the postseason conversation.
It is great that they are getting healthy. We just have no evidence thus far that, even with those big-name pieces falling into place, they are good enough to compete with the best the NL has to offer.
A completely healthy Kemp and red-hot Puig can change that conversation quickly. We just don't know how much longer the magic will last for Puig or what Kemp has to offer upon returning.
If you want to debate the National League West, or anything else baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments.