The Boston Red Sox recently lost their starting center fielder when Jacoby Ellsbury agreed to sign with the New York Yankees. When that happened, a trade for Matt Kemp immediately stood out as an intriguing response.
However, such a trade would require the the Red Sox to give up something substantial for a player with a scary injury history and a big contract, which is never a good idea. And even if a deal were to be struck, the Red Sox would be replacing Ellsbury more in body than in production.
As such, I'd characterize a deal as being unlikely. So would ESPNBoston.com's Gordon Edes:
Kemp talks with Red Sox have not reached serious stage, and one Sox source said they're not going to— Gordon Edes (@GordonEdes) December 9, 2013
Given the circumstances, Boston's rumored interest in Kemp coming to this was probably inevitable.
It's not a matter of Kemp being unavailable. Kemp is available because he's expendable, as the Dodgers have a surplus of outfielders and no guarantees that Kemp will be among the best of them after his recent bouts with injuries. Per Baseball Prospectus' injury database, the 29-year-old has missed 145 games over the last two seasons with hamstring, shoulder and ankle injuries.
Further complicating matters is that Kemp is owed $128 million over the next six seasons. That's not the kind of contract that's easy to move, especially when it belongs to a player with medical red flags.
One thing the Dodgers could do is eat a large chunk of Kemp's contract for the sake of getting some legit talent in return, but that doesn't make much sense for other teams given the state of Kemp's health. What makes more sense is the Dodgers eating a decent chunk of his contract for the sake of either filling a need or making an upside play on a prospect or two.
The Red Sox emerged as an intriguing suitor because such a deal is (or maybe was) conceivable for them.
If the Red Sox were to convince the Dodgers to pick up, say, $20-30 million of Kemp's remaining contract, one possibility is that Will Middlebrooks could be sent to LA to fill the Dodgers' hole at third base. Or maybe Felix Doubront to round out their rotation. Both have iffy talent but are under team control for the foreseeable future.
However, dealing Middlebrooks would leave the Red Sox with a gaping hole on the left side of their infield. Dealing Doubront would leave them with three pitchers due for free agency after 2014: Jon Lester, Jake Peavy and Ryan Dempster.
Then there's the possibility that the Dodgers wouldn't move Kemp without getting a younger player with more upside, such as Jackie Bradley Jr., Garin Cecchini, Henry Owens or Matt Barnes. None is on Xander Bogaerts's level, but each is a core prospect in a Boston system that's one of MLB's best.
The Red Sox could do it just to, you know, do it. But making a big move for the sake of making a big move doesn't appear to be general manager Ben Cherington's style. It would be more like him to make a deal for Kemp if he was able to conjure some assurance that he indeed would be able to soften the blow of Ellsbury's departure.
That would mean conjuring some optimism that, in light of the circumstances, is hard to conjure.
Let's get on the same page by considering what the Red Sox lost when Ellsbury walked. Per FanGraphs, here's what he was worth to them in 2013:
The "Off" (Offense) and "Def" (Defense) statistics provide the best way to get an idea of Ellsbury's two-way value, as these express how many runs above average he was worth on both sides of the ball. He was among the elites in center field, and his baserunning helped make up for his subpar power.
A couple years ago, replacing Ellsbury with Kemp would have been a fair deal, as the two were both power-speed center fielders who finished one-two in MLB in WAR in 2011. But just as Ellsbury isn't quite the same player he was then, the same certainly goes for Kemp.
Per FanGraphs, this is the player Kemp has become over the last two seasons:
The one thing that's immediately apparent is that going from Ellsbury to Kemp would be a humongous downgrade for Boston's center field defense. The Red Sox would be going from one of the best in the business to one of the worst in the business.
This, however, is not the deal-breaker.
Here's thinking the Red Sox would play Kemp in left field rather than in center field, preferably keeping Bradley around to provide plus defense in center field. Shane Victorino and his own plus defense would remain in right field.
Boston's defense in left field was extremely weak in 2013. If the Red Sox were to stash a former center fielder like Kemp there alongside Bradley and Victorino, it's not hard to imagine an overall defensive upgrade even despite the loss of Ellsbury.
As for the other side of the ball, it's hard to ignore how similar Kemp's production over the last two seasons has been to Ellsbury's 2013 season in regards to average and on-base percentage. Kemp's edge in power, meanwhile, helps make up for Ellsbury's edge in baserunning.
But it's also hard to ignore how Kemp's edge is only so big despite a larger sample size of plate appearances. And since Kemp's power advantage is the driving force, that advantage would have to live on to make switching Ellsbury out for Kemp worth Boston's while.
And here's where we come to the elephant in the room: Thanks to the state of his surgically-repaired left shoulder, Kemp's power is about as unsure a thing as there is in baseball today.
Looking both at the surface and more closely at Kemp's splits, it's like this:
|Year||PA||ISO||HR/FB||Pull ISO||Center ISO||Oppo ISO|
Kemp's power was down in 2012, but at least there were similarities between it and his 2011 power. His HR/FB was about the same, and the bulk of his power was still concentrated to center field and right field.
It's also worth noting that Kemp still had power even after hurting his left shoulder in late August. The month of September saw him post a .327 ISO in his final 14 games and a 24.0 HR/FB rate overall.
But then Kemp had surgery on that troublesome left shoulder in the offseason, specifically to repair a damaged labrum. When he was able to play in 2013, his old power was nowhere to be seen.
This is something that the Red Sox should be mindful of, as it wasn't all that long ago that they witnessed something similar happen with Adrian Gonzalez.
|Season||PA||ISO||HR/FB||Pull ISO||Center ISO||Oppo ISO|
It's not just that Gonzalez, who was traded to the Dodgers in August of 2012, has seen his old power evaporate. What's really depressing is that it's his once-trademarked power to the opposite field that has evaporated the most.
To be sure, this is mere anecdotal evidence we're looking at. But if I'm the Red Sox, that doesn't stop me from being very concerned that what happened to Gonzalez's power following shoulder surgery appears to be happening to Kemp following his own shoulder surgery.
To boot, Kemp hasn't had just one surgery. He underwent another surgery on his left shoulder in October. After coming back from one surgery proved to be difficult, now he has to deal with the added difficulty of coming back from two shoulder surgeries.
The rest of Kemp isn't a picture of health either. He also had surgery on his ankle earlier this winter, and Dodgers GM Ned Colletti told Jim Bowden of MLB Network Radio that the recovery from that is going to take a while:
Ned Colletti told us Matt Kemp leg is still in a boot and they are not expecting him to be 100% by Spring Training SXM— JIM BOWDEN (@JimBowdenESPNxm) December 9, 2013
In related news, Boston manager John Farrell also had something to say to Bowden regarding Kemp:
John Farrell shot down the Matt Kemp rumors with us SiriusXM— JIM BOWDEN (@JimBowdenESPNxm) December 9, 2013
So what Gordon Edes said about talks between the Red Sox and Dodgers going nowhere fast? That rings especially true right about now.
Maybe the Red Sox never were planning on going that far with their interest in Kemp. Or maybe they were and then talked themselves out of it. If they did the latter, it's not hard to imagine them being turned off by some of the same things we just considered.
Taking a gamble on Kemp would be a fine idea if the risk was as low as the reward was high. But given his health woes, the reward may not be all that high. And given what it would take to get him, the risk isn't all that low.
This is one gamble that the Red Sox have every right to want to avoid.
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