Not everyone seems to realize it, but Matt Kemp has been one of the best hitters in baseball in 2017. In fact, he is tied for 12th in wRC+ with early NL MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt at 154. This puts him above other offensive star players like Joey Votto, Kris Bryant, Daniel Murphy, Nelson Cruz, Giancarlo Stanton, and Mookie Betts.
Going back over the last 365 days, Kemp is tied for 23rd overall with a 132 wRC+ above Buster Posey, Robinson Cano, Bryce Harper, Nolan Arenado, Ryan Braun, and many other valuable hitters. His hitting has even been so good in that time (.303/.346/.541 32 HR) that it has been able to overcome his terrible defense and provide 2.6 fWAR in that time. Kemp hasn’t been worth over 1.5 fWAR since his injury-shortened 2012 where his defensive decline rapidly started. In that 2012 season, Kemp injured his shoulder running into the outfield wall at Coors Field and started dealing with multiple hamstring issues that last until 2014. From 2013 – 2016, Kemp was still an above average hitter, hitting .272/.321/.471 with a 117 wRC+ in that time. The real problem in that time was his defense. Offensively Kemp was worth 39.1 offensive runs from Fangraphs, but his defense was worth an abysmal -87.1 defensive runs. From 2013 – 2016, this was dead last in the MLB, and dead last by over 20 defensive runs.
But this is 2017. There may have been a slight change for Kemp from 2013 – 2016 to now. Over the 2016 – 2017 off-season, it appears as though Matt Kemp has slimmed down a bit and looks a bit better out in LF for the Braves. Not good by any means, but through 5/30, Kemp is only at -3.2 defensive runs in 2017. Barring a complete collapse back into his old ways, this gives the possibility of somewhere between a -10 to -15 defensive run season. This would still be among the worst defenders in baseball, but it wouldn’t at the very bottom. Really what this means is that by upping his fielding value, even just that small bit, it would allow for his offensive value to shine through and actually be worth a team trading for him.
Teams that should target Kemp:
Now even though Kemp’s defense does appear to be improved this season compared to the previous four, it is still probably a good idea to look at American League teams. This would be not only based off of his defense but based on the fact that he is over 30 as well.
Boston Red Sox: Needs – LF and DH
The Red Sox are built as not only a playoff contender, but a World Series contender. However, so far this season, the Red Sox are getting a line of .262/.346/.381 with a 93 wRC+ from their left fielders and .239/.346/.375 with a 96 wRC+ from the designated hitters this season. In left field, the bulk of the production has come from the former top prospect in baseball Andrew Benintendi, and a bit from Chris Young. At DH, almost all of their production has come from Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez has been slightly above average, but his lack of power has to be concerning to the Red Sox. As far as Benintendi in LF, he has been below average with the bat and with the glove. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he took more of a backseat this season if they brought in a more experienced player like Kemp. Same goes as far as playing time for Hanley Ramirez. At worst, if Mitch Moreland stops hitting as well as he is, Hanley could get more time in at 1B later in the season. There could be an interesting rotation with Kemp switching between LF/DH if the Red Sox wanted to get creative.
The one thing I can’t stop thinking about would be Matt Kemp peppering the Green Monster with line drives and the majestic home runs he could hit soaring over it. Kemp and Boston seem like a match made in heaven.
Seattle Mariners: Needs – LF
The Mariners may not believe they are contenders anymore, but they are just five games under .500 at the moment and if key players start returning from injuries, they aren’t that far out of the Wild Card race. The current LF situation in Seattle has been split between speedster Jarrod Dyson and Guillermo Heredia. Both have been productive players, though mainly from defensive production. Heredia has been a slightly above average hitter with a line of .300/.359/.386 and 111 wRC+, but Dyson has been far below hitting .221/.318/.312 with a 77 wRC+. The one thing missing from both players is power. This is something that Matt Kemp would definitely be able to bring for them. The big difference for them, however, would be the change in philosophy from good LF defense to terrible LF defense. It certainly is a big trade off, but Kemp could be a spark their lineup desperately needs if the Mariners want to make their way back to contention.
Texas Rangers: Needs – LF
The Rangers are in a similar spot to the Mariners, in that they have not been very good this season, but aren’t that far out the Wild Card. A glaring hole for the Rangers this season is their LF situation. The Rangers left fielders are hitting a combined .227/.308/.314 with a 68 wRC+. This puts them as the second to worst LF situation in all of the MLB, only ahead of the absolutely horrid Royals. Rangers left fielders have hit a total of 13 extra base hits this season in 242 PA. Matt Kemp has hit 24 extra base hits in only 177 PA in 2017. As well Kemp would likely thrive in Arlington in the Summer months, possibly seeing even more home runs than usual for him.
Toronto Blue Jays: Needs – LF
A month ago, I would not have added the Blue Jays to this list at all, thinking them left for dead early on in the season. However, after a 17-10 May so far with one game remaining, the Jays have pulled themselves from the depths and are still clinging to life. This charge back to relevance would be helped greatly if they could improve their dire looking LF situation. Between Ezequiel Carrera (.283/.336/.377 94 wRC+) and Steve Pearce (.205/.256/.373 65 wRC+), there has been no help for them out there. The Jays could slot Kemp in the either 4th or 5th behind Donaldson or Bautista and really put some more oomph in there, also to help stall the talks of putting Donaldson and Stroman onto the trade block.
Teams that could use Kemp, but wouldn’t make as much sense:
Baltimore Orioles: Needs – Somewhat LF, somewhat DH
I am including the Orioles in this section because their overall numbers at LF (.262/.322/.407 95 wRC+) and DH (.262/.317/.401 93 wRC+) aren’t very good, but because they may have already fixed the situation or they have a slumping but good option already there. For LF before May, it seemed to be a real problem. Joey Rickard, Hyun Soo Kim, and Craig Gentry were just awful out there. But in the last month or so, Trey Mancini seems to have fixed their problem hitting .300/.348/.525 with a 132 wRC+. Looking next to DH, it has been an under-performing position, but Mark Trumbo hit 47 HR last season, and the Orioles are likely to let him keep playing until he finds his groove again. Kemp could be helpful to the Orioles, but there really just doesn’t appear to be room for him.
Los Angeles Angels: Needs – Everything? LF and DH
I recently wrote an article talking about the Angels need to rebuild, especially now that Trout is going to be out for the next two months of this season. I still very much believe the Angels should pull the trigger on a rebuild. However, I don’t believe that is what will happen. I think the Angels will stand pat for the most part and wait for Trout to return, then fight pointlessly for a .500 record. If indeed the Angels are not going to rebuild, I see no reason for them not to trade for Matt Kemp. Kemp would be a big upgrade in LF (.233/.317/.356 89 wRC+) and could spend some time at DH on the days where Albert Pujols can actually play 1B. Kemp would a fairly decent replacement in the lineup for Trout while he is gone, giving them someone for Pujols to protect in the lineup. If Kemp continues to rebound he could even be someone they trade in the 2017 – 2018 off-season anyway.
Colorado Rockies: Needs – LF
I really do believe Kemp should be traded to an American League club, however, the Rockies have been surprisingly good, only just yesterday relinquishing first place to the Dodgers for the first time all season, and are right among the best teams in baseball. One position they could stand to improve upon is LF. Gerardo Parra and Ian Desmond have provided a very lackluster tag team for the Rockies, meanwhile, Matt Kemp has crushed it in Coors in his career (.337/.401/.630 19 HR in 78 games played). I do believe the big open outfield will be very troublesome on defense, but the huge upgrade on offense might just be worth it to the Rockies if they want to stay in the division race all season.
What it might cost to trade for Matt Kemp and contract details:
The first time Kemp was traded he was coming off of a good rebound season in 2014 hitting .287/.346/.506 with 25 HR and worth 1.4 fWAR. Kemp and Mattingly were at odds at different points during the season, including Kemp sitting out an entire week because he did not want to switch from CF or RF to the LF position. Once he did finally take the LF position, Kemp’s offensive numbers started to look like they did before all his injuries in 2012 and 2013. There were a few teams interested in him in the 2014 – 2015 offseason, but it was the Padres and their “Rockstar GM” AJ Preller that landed Kemp in a deal for Yasmani Grandal, Joe Wieland, and Zack Eflin. The Dodgers sent the Padres $32 million dollars to help cover part of the $107 million remaining on Kemp’s contract, but that $32 is not attached in any way to the actual contract, just cash to the Padres.
Matt Kemp remained with the Padres for a season and a half until he was traded to the Braves as a sunk cost for another sunk cost, Hector Olivera. This deal was done because completely as a cost-cutting move for the Braves, as they dumped Olivera’s contract on the Padres, as well as receiving $10.5 million along with Kemp to cover some salary. But as mentioned near the start of the article, over the last year Kemp has done a good job to raise his status on offense to partially overcome his terrible defense, making him much less of a sunk cost and much more of someone that could help a team greatly.
Kemp is owed $21.5 million from 2017 – 2019 when his contract expires. I would believe that any trade would include the Braves covering part of it in the deal as to get back a better return. We saw the Dodgers send over $32 million when Kemp was owed $107 million. We saw the Padres take on a contract for Hector Olivera when he was owed about $30.5 million at the time as well as sending an extra $10 million to the Braves to help cover Kemp’s contract. So each time Kemp has been traded there has been money sent him to cover some salary. At this point, Kemp has a little over two and a half years left on his contract for around $56 million or so remaining owed to him. If the Braves were to eat around $10-15 million, a contract of 2+ years for $40-45 million would start to look pretty good to teams in need of a LF or DH, which many are.
If we are to say the Braves will eat $10-15 million in any deal, it is like the the return for Kemp would still not be a top prospect by any means, but I do not think a fringe top 150-200 prospect would be out of the question. This could mean something like Rangers prospect Leody Taveras, Mariners prospect Nick Neidert, or possibly Red Sox prospect Roniel Raudes. It would be likely in my estimation that it would be more of a C+ with decent potential or a B- prospect who has lost some shine that the the Braves would try to target if they were to trade Kemp.
Every day that Matt Kemp plays for a National League team, especially one in the midst of a rebuild, really does feel like a waste of his hitting talent. There are many contending American League teams that would benefit so well from trading a C+ or B- prospect for him. Kemp is showing right now that he is still able to play LF, just not play well. If they could cycle his playing time between LF and DH, this would truly be the best way to maximize his value. It will be interesting to see if we start to hear Matt Kemp’s name a lot more over the next couple of months as we get closer and closer to the trade deadline. But I believe we will end up seeing him traded to an American League club, if he is traded at all.
Bobby Down, Baseline Times MLB Contributor