Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp is anxious to return to the field.
Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp is poised for a major comeback next season following two injury-marred campaigns. Less than two years ago Kemp had emerged as one of MLB’s top five players. Now some may argue that he’s merely the fifth best player playing for the Dodgers.
As a recent NL MVP candidate and a key player on a World Series contender, Kemp’s comeback attempt will be one of the biggest storylines of the coming season. Here are five predictions for what we can expect from the former All-Star in 2014.
Kemp is still recovering from offseason ankle surgery.
There have been mixed messages on Kemp's health following surgery on his left ankle last October. The Dodgers have all but ruled him out for the season-opening series against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Australia and a return date has not yet been set.
In a statement made during the Dodgers’ FanFest event on Feb. 1, Kemp insisted that he would not rush back from his latest injury as he did last year:
“I’m going to be on my own program for the moment. I’m not rushing back,” Kemp said. “I want to be 100 percent. When I’m 100 percent, that’s when I’ll start playing.
Given the rash of injuries to Kemp and other key players over the past two years, my guess is that the Dodgers support Kemp’s cautious approach to his recovery. In fact, Los Angeles should be prepared to start the season without Kemp for the first two-to-three weeks of April if it means having him healthy for the rest of 2014.
Kemp patrols the Dodgers outfield in healthier times.
During that same FanFest event, Kemp reminded us that he is not your typical injury-prone superstar.
“I’m not made of glass,” Kemp told them. “I’m a beast still.”
Let’s not forget that Kemp averaged 158 games played between 2008 and 2011. He appeared in no less than 155 games in each of those four seasons, missing just one game between 2010 and 2011.
Kemp just turned 29 last September and none of the recent injuries he’s suffered are considered career-altering. He’s been healthy throughout his eight-year career far more frequently than he’s been hurt, so expect a return to form for Kemp in 2014.
Do Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig make Kemp expendable?
One of the hottest rumors burning up the hot stove prior to MLB’s Winter Meetings was that the Dodgers were looking to break up their talented outfield by trading Kemp. While the Seattle Mariners were interested, no legitimate trade discussions ever materialized.
With second-year Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig added to the mix, Los Angeles seems content to enter the season with one of the best collections of outfield talent in all of baseball.
Crawford finished 2013 looking more like the All-Star he was with the Tampa Bay Rays than the injury-plagued bust that he was with the Boston Red Sox. Puig’s outstanding rookie campaign along with Ethier’s return to form allowed the Dodgers to thrive in spite of Kemp’s absence.
With top outfield prospect Joc Pederson ready to make his major league debut sometime in 2014, it would be reasonable to speculate that Los Angeles would look to unload the last six years and $125 million remaining on Kemp’s contract. The money aside, it is far too early to give up on a player of Kemp’s age and pedigree.
Kemp will get back on the path towards superstardom this year and remain a member of the Dodgers organization for years to come.
Kemp's comeback will rival Hanley Ramirez's 2013 campaign.
Those anxious to deliver Kemp’s career eulogy would do well to reflect on Hanley Ramirez’s return to form in 2013. The Dodgers shortstop emerged as L.A.’s best position player last season and was the main catalyst behind the team’s miraculous turnaround following a 20-32 start.
Ramirez was, himself, coming off three consecutive years limited by elbow, shoulder and hamstring injuries following a 2009 season in which he finished second to former St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols in the NL MVP voting. Injuries again limited Ramirez to just 86 regular season games in 2013.
However, he absolutely destroyed National League pitching while leading the Dodgers to the NL West title and the National League Championship Series. In a little more than half a season, Ramirez delivered a ridiculous .345/.402/.638 line with 20 home runs, 57 RBI and 62 runs scored.
The similarities between Ramirez’s 2013 comeback and Kemp’s return in 2014 extend beyond the multiple injuries and MVP runner-up finishes. Both were entering their age-29 seasons and were nearly two years removed from major shoulder injuries that sapped them of their power.
If Kemp avoids any setbacks in his recovery, he will dwarf the 86 games that Ramirez played in last year. Kemp won’t sniff Ramirez’s .345 batting average, but he should easily surpass Ramirez’s counting stats and perhaps lead the Dodgers all the way to the World Series.
Kemp will rejoin Kershaw as the faces of the Dodgers organization.
Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw recently surpassed Kemp as the Dodgers' highest paid player (in terms of total contract value). But by the end of the 2014 season Kemp will reemerge as the co-face of the franchise and the best position player in Los Angeles.
Given Ramirez’s career revival, Puig’s youth and Adrian Gonzalez’s consistency, Kemp’s return to alpha dog status may seem unlikely. But I think people are forgetting just how good a healthy Kemp is.
Ramirez is arguably Kemp’s equal at the plate, and injuries have likely sapped both players of their former 40-plus stolen base potential. However, Ramirez’s defense, at it’s best, is inferior to Kemp’s play in the outfield.
Ramirez has often been a liability in the field while Kemp won his second Gold Glove award in 2011 before injuries began to take control of his career.
Puig is an equal, if not superior, physical talent to both Kemp and Ramirez. But Puig regressed considerably once the league started to figure him out, and we’ve yet to see how he will adjust entering his sophomore campaign.
You can pencil Gonzalez in for a .300 batting average, 20-plus home runs, 100 RBI and Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base. But he was never a threat on the base paths and he’s refused to adjust his swing to produce more power after also undergoing left shoulder surgery in 2010.
A healthy Kemp is still better than his three teammates, even if he’s no longer a threat to join the exclusive 40/40 club.
So what about Kershaw and right-handed starter Zack Greinke? Count me among those who believe that position players are more valuable than pitchers.
If Kemp returns to being even 90 percent of the player he was in 2011, he’ll return to being the Dodgers’ best player and among the best in all of Major League Baseball.