Los Angeles Dodgers star center fielder Matt Kemp is back in the lineup for Friday's home opener against the San Francisco Giants after recovering from a potentially career-threatening left ankle injury.
While Kemp was projected to return in more of a pinch-hitting capacity, Bill Plunkett of The Orange County Register reported outfielder Yasiel Puig was tardy to Friday's practice and subsequently benched for the game.
Yasiel Puig arrived late. Was not on the field for most off the workout and has been pulled from #Dodgers lineup. Kemp is in.— Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) April 4, 2014
The MLB Lineups Twitter feed confirmed the news:
4/4 New @Dodgers lineup vs SFG Crawford LF Kemp CF Ramirez SS Gonzalez 1B Uribe 3B Ethier RF Ellis C Gordon 2B Ryu P— MLBLineups (@mlblineups) April 4, 2014
The Dodgers knew Kemp likely wouldn't return for the Opening Series games in Australia, which began March 22 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and he was later placed on the disabled list just before the first game of the 2014 regular season.
Manager Don Mattingly provided an encouraging update on March 25, suggesting that Kemp could indeed be activated for L.A.'s home opener against the rival Giants:
Kemp's health makes matters even more complicated for the crowded Dodgers outfield. Puig burst onto the scene as an instant star in right field last season, and Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford are both multi-time All-Stars.
Kemp has refused to settle for a bench role, which makes sense given the caliber of player he's proven to be when he's not injured. Per ESPN Los Angeles' Mark Saxon:
I'm not a fourth outfielder. We can cut that off right there. I won't accept that role. I can't accept that role...The [general manager], his job is to do what he does, and I'm going to do what I do. My job is to help the team win. We've all got decisions to make and responsibilities. I'm sure it'll all, you know, come out the way it's supposed to come out, but I can't worry about things I can't control.
If Kemp returns to his previous level of play, Mattingly may be tempted to shuffle him into the lineup more often than Puig, who has already stirred controversy with his antics early in the 2014 season.
Chris Jones of ESPN The Magazine empathized with Mattingly in analyzing Puig's behavior:
Only reporters who brag about their lack of access defend Yasiel Puig. If you've been within 20 feet of him, you get the complaints.— Chris Jones (@MySecondEmpire) March 26, 2014
As for Kemp, there is an evident competitive fire to prove his detractors wrong and emulate the form he flashed in between 2009 and 2011. In the latter season, he led the National League with 39 home runs, 126 RBI and 115 runs scored while also stealing 40 bases, finishing second in league MVP balloting.
Unfortunately, Kemp's body may not allow him to return to an All-Star level. With a total of 145 games missed over the past two campaigns, Los Angeles must tread with caution in easing Kemp back in. According to a report by Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, if he rushes back too soon, he can cause permanent damage to his ailing talus bone, which would put his career in jeopardy.
If Kemp isn't quite fit enough to play right away, there's no reason to rush him back with the star power in Tinseltown. That's especially so since the Dodgers won the NL West Division crown in 2013, proving they could get it done without Kemp for more than half the year.