During the Los Angeles Dodgers' remarkable 43-10 run that started on June 22, they've gotten exactly 37 at-bats from superstar center fielder Matt Kemp. Those at-bats were highly productive—he had three homers, two doubles, seven singles, 10 RBI, eight runs scored and two stolen bases—but it's safe to say that he's been a minimal part of the team's success in 2013.
So why is it so important for the Dodgers to get the 28-year-old, who had mostly struggled this season before being sidelined for ankle, hamstring and shoulder ailments, back on the field for the stretch run?
While Andre Ethier has finally returned to form after struggling for the first three months of the season—he had a .702 OPS with five homers through June 30 and has an .856 OPS and four homers since—he's playing out of position in place of Kemp. Ethier was a Gold Glove winner in 2011 as the team's right fielder, but he's nowhere near the defender that Kemp is in center.
A two-time Gold Glove winner, Kemp not only makes a difference with his glove and arm, but plays like this one from 2012 while he had a nagging shoulder injury make him a leader on the field.
The Puig Factor
Kemp's return would put manager Don Mattingly in a tough position of having four outfielders deserving of playing time and only three starting spots. Or is it just one of those really good problems to have?
Relying on Puig—who has shown some immaturity issues—when it matters most isn't likely to affect them now while they have a 7.5-game lead over second-place Arizona in the division. But during the playoffs, it might work to the team's advantage for Puig to know that he's not guaranteed a lineup spot every day.
At the least, Ethier's presence should keep the talented youngster focused on showing up on time and playing fundamentally sound baseball.
Whichever trio Mattingly goes with to start the game, he'll be able to utilize the fourth outfielder as a weapon coming off the bench later in the game. It could be Puig's power or Carl Crawford's speed. But in all likelihood, Ethier would play the role.
And that actually sounds better than it would have a few months ago. With the regular at-bats he's gotten while Kemp has been out, Ethier should be sharp enough to remain a factor coming off the bench as a left-handed pinch hitter. Even if his main role will be to keep Puig motivated, several playoff games have been decided in the late innings with the game on the line.
He hasn't had too many chances to come off the bench thus far in 2013, but he has come up big recently. With the team trailing by two in the bottom of the ninth on August 14, Ethier launched a two-run tying homer against New York Mets closer LaTroy Hawkins.
Intangibles aside, Kemp was considered one of the most talented all-around players in the game heading into the second half of 2012. After an amazing 2011 season (.986 OPS, 39 HR, 126 RBI, 40 SB) when he just lost out to Ryan Braun in National League MVP voting, Kemp was on an even better pace to start last season before a hamstring injury sidelined him for several weeks.
In mid-August, he was still in the midst of a strong season (1.058 OPS, 17 HR, 51 RBI in 66 games) but played through a shoulder injury and struggled at the plate the rest of the way (.655 OPS, 6 HR, 11 BB, 45 K in 40 games). After he underwent offseason surgery, it was revealed that he had a partially torn labrum and rotator cuff damage, according to Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles.
Kemp was back early in spring training, but it's quite possible that the surgery affected his performance early in the regular season. He had a .640 OPS with two homers when he was sidelined with a strained hamstring in late May. Mike Axisa of CBS Sports wrote about the possibility of Kemp's surgery being a factor in his slow start and referred to quotes from Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed Kemp's surgery.
ElAttrache described the recovery process as complex because the player feels strong, yet his mechanics might be slightly off, which would keep a player from returning to his previous form.
If a completely healthy Kemp were to show up sometime in September—Mattingly recently told Ken Gurnick of MLB.com that Kemp wasn't expected back from the disabled list before September 1—and is able to log two to three weeks of at-bats before the start of the playoffs, the Dodgers could be the World Series favorite.
With Kemp in the mix, I feel much better about calling the Dodgers a World Series-caliber ball club.
1 Carl Crawford, LF
2 Yasiel Puig, RF
3 Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
4 Hanley Ramirez, SS
5 Matt Kemp, CF
6 Juan Uribe, 3B
7 A.J. Ellis, C
8 Mark Ellis, 2B
Tim Federowicz, C
Skip Schumaker, 2B/OF
Nick Punto, IF
Jerry Hairston Jr., IF/OF
Andre Ethier, OF
1 Clayton Kershaw, LHP
2 Zack Greinke, RHP
3 Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP
4 Ricky Nolasco, RHP
CL Kenley Jansen, RHP
SU Ronald Belisario, RHP
SU Paco Rodriguez, LHP
MID Brian Wilson, RHP
MID Chris Withrow, RHP
MID J.P. Howell, LHP
MID Carlos Marmol, RHP
LR Chris Capuano, LHP