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Fantasy LVP: Matt Kemp

Headed into the season in my main league, I was pretty excited about the prospect of my outfield. In left field, there was Mike Trout, probably the most valuable player in fantasy. In right field, Domonic Brown, about to break out. They’d be flanking my center fielder, someone who not all that long ago was one of the most valuable fantasy player himself.

Sadly, it didn’t work out that way for Matt Kemp, who ended up being one of fantasy’s biggest busts. (Fortunately for me, I could easily move Trout to center and spot in left with, at various points, Evan Gattis, Norichika Aoki, and Alfonso Soriano.)

I feel a little bad listing Kemp with someone who was simply atrocious like B.J. Upton, because there was obviously a lot more to it than that. Really, there were three different Kemps this year:

1) Struggling to overcome shoulder surgery while killing your team Kemp (April/May)

It’s easy to forget this now, because Kemp’s MVP-quality 2011 season was followed by an injury-plagued 2012, but the left hamstring that cost him nearly two months of 2012 wasn’t the main problem. When he returned from that injury on July 13, he was close to his old self, hitting .324/.370/.488 through August 28… when he slammed into the wall in Denver, then hitting  just .222/.270/.435 through the remainder of the year.

Kemp underwent surgery to repair the labrum he’d injured in that collision, and worked hard all winter to make it back in time for Opening Day. He did make that date, but it didn’t work out all that well. It took him four games to get his first hit; it took him 20 to get his first homer; it took him 43 to get his second. As the Dodgers sunk into last place, Kemp hit just .251/.305/.335 through the end of May, taking down innumerable fantasy teams — either unwilling or unable to give up on him — with them.

As discussion swirled about whether Kemp should take time off to further rehab his shoulder, the decision was made for him — on May 29, he injured his right hamstring, sidelining him for a month.

2) Ever-so-close to actually being on the field yet never close enough Kemp (June/July)

Kemp returned from that injury on June 25, and after some initial struggles, homered in back-to-back games in his eighth and ninth starts. The next day, July 5 in San Francisco, he swing awkwardly and tweaked the shoulder again, putting him right back on to the disabled list.

This time, he missed just 15 days and returned in Washington, and for the first time, there was hope. On July 21, Kemp had three hits, including a homer and a double. He looked like his old self.

But in the ninth inning, he had to go and do this…

…which put him right back on the disabled list after less than a single game.

3. The “you’re just toying with us now, aren’t you” Kemp. (Aug/Sept)

Kemp missed all of August and most of September, and after initial reports of setbacks that indicated he might never come back, returned to the field on September 16. In 11 games, he was again productive — .314/.385/.486 — to the point that the Dodgers planned on using him in October and there was reason for fantasy owners to consider him for the final days of the year.

But Kemp didn’t play in the final two games of the year, and just after the team finished off the regular season, he was seen on crutches during the celebration. Then the news came out — he’d require surgery on that ankle (as well as a clean-up one on the shoulder) and would not be available in the playoffs.

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So what are we left with?

Over the course of the season, Kemp’s .316 wOBA was equal to that of Jose Lobaton and Michael Saunders. Over the last two seasons, he’s missed 145 games, and the fact that so many of his woes have been leg injuries makes it easy to think that the speed that three times brought him more than 34 stolen bases isn’t coming back. And yet, in between the injuries, there’s still been those flashes of hope, in the weeks between the hamstring and shoulder injuries in 2012 and after the brutal two months to start 2013.

All of which makes Kemp a fantastically interesting fantasy candidate headed into 2014, his age-29 season. After the last two years, he absolutely cannot be counted upon, and should be valued accordingly. Yet he’s still on the right side of 30, and will now be a year further from the major shoulder injury that so clearly affected him late in 2012 and early in 2013.

Put it this way: people are still going to take chances on Kemp in 2014, and there probably won’t be much of a middle ground. Either he’s going to be a steal, or he’s going to be an anchor on yet more fantasy teams.