With a payroll north of $200,000,000, you would expect the Los Angeles Dodgers to field a competitive team, and indeed they have. As we emerge from the All-Star break, they are neck and neck with the hated Giants, heading into a pennant chase that could be one for the ages. The Dodgers have four of the most watchable players in baseball (Kershaw, Greinke, Puig, and Ramirez) and a farm system with enough talent to supply reinforcements either directly or via trades. The team is not without needs, however. Like almost any team, the Dodgers has some bullpen depth issues, but just alleviated those somewhat by recalling Paco Rodriguez, a non-flamethrower who nevertheless generates a ton of Ks. Catching has been a riddle for manager Don Mattingly as well. He’s had to use four backstops, none of whom have amassed enough appearances to qualify for the batting title, and of whom only the stalwart but venerable A.J. Ellis has provided anything even approaching an offensive contribution. (Well, Miguel Olivo made an offensive contribution of a different kind.)
But the biggest problem has been Matt Kemp, who dug a Tunguskan-size crater in center field before Mattingly more or less permanently shunted him to left. Kemp has the worst WAR (-1.3) for any position player qualifying for the batting title except Domonic Brown. Kemp’s hitting about as well as last year’s (modest) effort, but his defense has gone from bad (-0.6 dWAR) to eye-watering (-2.5). Whether you’re new school (zone rating) or old school (range factor), you will find nothing to like in Kemp’s defensive metrics. The move to left has probably mitigated the defensive damage he’s doing, but mainly by reducing his opportunities to come within proximity of the ball. His range in left is almost as far below the league as his range in center, although he’s making fewer errors. Kemp’s agent thinks he can still play center, and so presumably do Matt and his mom. That about exhausts the list.
In one sense this is a simple problem that the Dodgers can solve without any outside help. They could bench Kemp immediately. Center field prospect Joc Pederson is murdilating the PCL’s beleaguered pitchers to the tune of a 1.045 OPS, and yes, that’s good even in the PCL. Pederson is third in the league in OPS, behind two guys who are at least five years older. To the extent Pederson would struggle against major league lefties, he could be platooned with righty Scott Van Slyke, with Andre Ethier sliding between center and left. This is a rare situation where a manager can (almost) unilaterally boost his team’s playoff chances with a single lineup change.
And yet … Kemp can still hit. His .752 OPS is third on the Dodgers among batting qualifiers, and while that’s over 80 points off his career number, it still represents useful offense. At this stage in his career, Kemp’s value would dramatically increase if he didn’t have to put on a glove. The question is how to allocate that increased value among the Dodgers and their potential trade suitors. There are four playoff-contending AL teams whose DHs are either injured, ineffective, or both:
New York Yankees (Carlos Beltran .698 OPS)
Kansas City Royals (Billy Butler .675)
Cleveland Spiders (Nick Swisher .641)
Seattle Mariners (Corey Hart .611)
Kemp would immediately boost any of these teams’ offenses. The Yankees could take much of Kemp’s anvil-like contract ($20 m/yr through 2019), but have few if any prospects to offer. The Royals and Mariners are in the opposite situation: good talent to trade but limited ability to absorb such a huge financial hit. Cleveland, sadly, can’t really employ either approach, and in any case hitting is not their main need.
Dodgers president Stan Kasten’s general strategy upon assuming command was to throw immense amounts of Guggenheim money at the major league roster first, and then reinforce the farm system to ensure a steady stream of cost-controlled reinforcements for the future. Part I of the plan is working well, and Part II is underway with Corey Seager, Julio Urias and Alex “Van Gogh” Guerrero headlining a good collection of upper level minor league talent (non-Pederson division). The Dodgers could go either way here: begin their slow march away from the payroll tax penalty by banishing Kemp to the Bronx, or recharge the lower reaches of their farm system with talent from either of the smaller market franchises who could be in on Kemp. They may not succeed in moving Kemp, but if they can it would provide at least a small edge in a pennant race that looks sure to go to the wire.
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