Matt Kemp is only 28 years old and just one year removed from signing a huge contract extension with the Los Angeles Dodgers. But it is looking more and more likely that we have seen the very best that Kemp has to offer.
For the third time in the last 14 months, the Dodgers placed Kemp on the 15-day disabled list (h/t MLB.com). Two of those stints have been the result of an ailing left shoulder that had to be operated on during the offseason.
Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly didn't even seem to know what to make of Kemp's most recent shoulder injury, being quoted by the Associated Press as saying that "it is kind of a separate issue" even though "it is that shoulder..."
In addition to the stints on the disabled list, Kemp played through shoulder problems at the end of the 2012 season after he crashed into the wall in a game against the Colorado Rockies.
Since the first time Kemp went on the disabled list on May 14, 2012, his overall performance has fallen off a cliff. Playing in 131 out of a possible 214 games, the Dodgers center fielder is hitting just .273/.319/.416 with 15 homers in 510 at-bats.
Compare that to what Kemp did before the injuries, when he finished second in the National League MVP voting in 2011 with a .324/.399/.586 line, 39 home runs, 40 stolen bases and 353 total bases. He followed that up with an electrifying start in 2012 by hitting .359/.446/.726 with 12 home runs through May 13.
Even though Ryan Braun won the NL MVP award in 2011, Kemp had a significant advantage in Fangraphs' wins above replacement (8.4 to 7.3). Kemp also had six more home runs (39 to 33) despite playing home games in a bigger park and in a division with pitcher-friendly Petco Park and AT&T Park. Even as a below-average center fielder, Kemp also provided more value on defense than Braun in left field.
Kemp took the next step from being a very good player to superstar talent in short order and was just 26 years old. The sky was supposed to be the limit for this young man.
We now have more than a full year to judge Kemp's performance by, though he still has yet to remain healthy long enough for us to actually determine what kind of player he will be moving forward.
Kemp's teammate, Adrian Gonzalez, also battled shoulder problems late in 2011 and 2012 that sapped his power numbers. The Dodgers first baseman has seen his slugging percentage go from .548 in 2011 with the Boston Red Sox to .463 last season to .483 through 85 games in 2013.
As Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated noted, Kemp can look at where Gonzalez is at right now and draw some parallels with himself and what will happen when he comes back.
At this point, he may not be able to come close to matching the 23 homers he hit last year in 106 games, let alone the 39 he hit in 161 games in 2011. How long his power outage will continue is no small concern given that he’s got six years still remaining on his contract.
There are two key differences between the two players that make it hard to say that Kemp is going to follow Gonzalez's career arc.
First, Gonzalez started experiencing a dip in power as he reached the age of 30. Some of that can be attributed to the shoulder issues he had previously, but once you reach a certain age, some skills will deteriorate.
Gonzalez would not be the first player in history to see a drop in production after reaching the magical age of 30. No two players are exactly the same, so when the decline eventually hits, there is no stopping it regardless of how many prime years they should have left.
Kemp, on the other hand, is just 28 years old and was playing at an MVP level before the shoulder issues started.
It is time to start worrying about whether Kemp will return to his MVP-caliber form, especially since the procedure done on his shoulder revealed the injury was worse than expected. But considering where Kemp was at before and his age, it seems more than plausible that he can at least get close to the level he was at before.
The second difference is that Kemp is just a much better athlete than Gonzalez. Kemp has more speed and all-around skills than Gonzalez, meaning that even if he isn't the hitter he used to be, he can impact the game in other ways.
What kind of player will Matt Kemp be going forward?
That is why the Dodgers gave Kemp an eight-year, $160 million contract in November 2011. They knew that even if his power declined, he could be a factor in various other ways as a baserunner, defender and hitter.
But Kemp is entering the danger zone where it has been so long since he was an elite player that there may be no way he can provide the Dodgers with anything close to the level of production his salary suggests he is worth.
Baseball is a hard game, one that requires you to constantly make adjustments in order to succeed. Kemp is fighting his body and Father Time just trying to stay on the field, let alone actually be able to perform.
The further away we get from the time Kemp was the best player in the National League, the more likely it is that he just turns into another player making a ridiculous sum of money who can't physically perform.
Finances don't appear to be an issue for the Dodgers, who have been spending money like it is going out of style. But we have seen that they are still lacking depth this year, and there is no way to replace someone expected to hit in the middle of the lineup and provide 30-plus homers and stolen bases.
Yasiel Puig and Clayton Kershaw are able to mask some of the issues this franchise has, but Kemp is the glue that holds everything together. If Los Angeles wants to make a deep postseason run, Kemp has to be a huge factor in the lineup and center field.
But considering how long it has been since we have seen the "real" Matt Kemp on the field, it is not unreasonable to think that the Dodgers are on the hook for over $100 million over the next six years with a permanently damaged product.
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