Just a few years ago, in 2011, the two Most Valuable Player awards were given to Justin Verlander and Ryan Braun. They were fine choices, both, but just according to WAR, the two best players in baseball that year were Jacoby Ellsbury and Matt Kemp. Ellsbury, at 27, was a nine-win everyday center fielder. Kemp, at 26, was an eight-win everyday center fielder. Both of them had the look of long-term franchise players, but both stumbled in 2012 and still haven’t returned to that previous level. Now, during the 2013-2014 MLB offseason, both Ellsbury and Kemp appear to be available. And they are, naturally, two of the biggest available names.
Ellsbury, of course, is available as a free agent, and Scott Boras has drawn parallels to the Carl Crawford contract. Ellsbury could be looking at something like six years and $130-140 million. Kemp is available as a trade target, as the Dodgers are said to be shopping Kemp, Crawford, and Andre Ethier in order to better accommodate Yasiel Puig and clear some payroll space. Kemp’s under contract for another six years at $128 million. The Kemp and Ellsbury money could be very similar. Somebody is going to pay that amount to Ellsbury on purpose. Kemp, though, probably can’t be moved without the Dodgers eating some cash. As similar as the two players might look, it’s probable that, at this point, Matt Kemp’s trade value is negative.
It does have to be noted that Kemp is almost exactly one year younger than Ellsbury, and that’s a point in his favor, even if it doesn’t make much of a difference in the short-term. But there’s real age, and there’s effective age. We’ll get into this in a little bit, but for now we can start with the fundamental question: if Matt Kemp were placed on waivers, would he be claimed?
Obviously, I can’t know the answer to that for sure, but it’s worth pointing out that a summer ago, Joe Mauer reportedly went through unclaimed. He was a star catcher under contract another six years for a similar total as Kemp. Maybe Mauer would’ve been claimed under other circumstances, but this is the fundamental question because it addresses the very idea of that trade value. If nobody wants a player at his salary, then his value is in the red. My guess is that Kemp would pass through, because teams care a lot about what players have done recently, and the current version of Matt Kemp is basically wearing a three-piece suit made out of red flags.
Kemp and Ellsbury were similar in 2011. Kemp was better in 2012, in large part because Ellsbury was hurt. Ellsbury, however, was much better in 2013, in large part because Kemp was hurt. Playing most of the season, Ellsbury returned to the level of being a star. Kemp, when he got on the field, was more or less replacement-level, as he was down the stretch the season before. Basically, Ellsbury rebounded before hitting the market. Kemp has done the opposite, and there are a bunch of legitimate questions about his health.
Which is funny in a way, since Kemp was once the picture of durability. They always are until they aren’t. Not that Ellsbury has been the healthiest player in the world, but as has been pointed out before, Ellsbury’s injuries have mostly been freak accidents. Kemp’s body has behaved in such a way that he’s not an ordinary 29-year-old. His “effective age”, if you will, seems a bit older, and the nature of his problems makes one legitimately concerned about what might be to come.
In the last two years, Kemp has had pretty major hamstring issues. He’s had ankle issues, and he’s had both major and minor shoulder surgery. His isolated power dropped to .125, cutting the previous season almost in half, and where Kemp’s never been considered a defensive whiz, he might not even be a realistic center fielder anymore given what’s gone on with his lower body. The healthy version wasn’t real good. Now he’s older and he’s got more scars.
Ellsbury has been able to rebuild his value. He’s a certain center fielder for the next handful of years. There aren’t any real questions about lingering injuries. People don’t know how Kemp’s going to move. They don’t know how Kemp’s going to swing. Matt Kemp requires a lot of guesswork, and other teams are naturally going to be more down on him than Kemp’s own current employer. The Dodgers love Kemp’s ceiling. Other teams are aware of it, but they’ll also be more conscious of the risks.
It’s not at all impossible for Kemp to get back to being a good regular player. As a matter of fact, I’d say it’s very possible. He is still young, and he is still extremely talented. Probably, he won’t return to being a star, and given the amount of money he’s guaranteed, to take that all on would be to roll the dice on Kemp being really good again right away. That’s not the 50% projection. That’s more like the 70 or 80% projection. Trading for Kemp and his salary indicates a belief he’ll be terrific. All that is is a possibility, and he could just as easily be a corner outfielder with reduced power from this point forward. Kemp has basically the same career wRC+ as Ethier does.
Teams tend to be relatively risk-averse, in that when they make a big splash, they prefer to do so on established, durable players. Teams are always willing to give a chance to more fragile talent, but usually not with a mega-deal. In those cases, they’re looking for bargains, or shorter-term acquisitions. Kemp isn’t a bargain, and he isn’t a shorter-term acquisition. He’s a one-time superstar under contract for 60% of the next decade.
What the Dodgers can argue is that Josh Hamilton just got five years and $125 million on the free-agent market, and Hamilton was one of the least reliable big-time free agents in history. Hamilton had a reputation for fragility, he obviously came with a checkered past, and nobody was certain what to expect. But Hamilton was also coming off a four-win season, which followed a four-win season, which followed an eight-win season, and on top of that, the Hamilton contract isn’t a selling point anymore after season one. Hamilton in 2012 was way better than Kemp was in 2013, and Kemp comes with additional questions about his health. With Hamilton, it’s about managing aches and pains. With Kemp, the power might not ever come back. The foot speed might not ever come back.
It’s yet to be seen what Matt Kemp still has in the tank, and for that reason, it’s highly unlikely anyone would be willing to take him and his contract. Without knowing the new market rate for wins, we can’t play around with that many numbers, but in order for a team to just take Matt Kemp, it seems like the Dodgers would need to chip in some tens of millions of dollars. And that’s without the Dodgers getting talent back. That’s straight-up salary relief, and the Dodgers probably aren’t looking to just dump Matt Kemp for nothing with a name. That seems to go against their current business model.
Kemp has it in him to be a flashy, recognizable star, and to move him now could be selling low given the assortment of perfectly valid questions. Crawford and Ethier are under contract for two fewer seasons, and they’re less likely to have massive performance rebounds. Those are the sorts of players where it seems like the Dodgers would be willing to chip in money to save other money. The Dodgers probably wouldn’t end up missing Crawford or Ethier. Kemp would have some chance of making them look silly, and the Dodgers wouldn’t want to end up in a position where they gave away a star at low value just for financial relief. The preferred course, presumably, is to allow Kemp to try to rebuild value. Realistically he couldn’t be worse in 2014 than he was in 2013.
The more risk-averse path is to not acquire Matt Kemp. For the Dodgers, the more risk-averse path is to not sell Matt Kemp. There’s probably not going to be a trade involving Matt Kemp. Not this offseason, not unless I have a completely incorrect read. It only takes one GM, but all those GMs have support staffs, and all those support staffs can see the same things.
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