MSTI’s 2009 in Review: Center Field

My, how times have changed. A year ago at this time, I was reviewing Matt Kemp and Andruw Jones in center field, and struggling to find the right way to describe Jones’ horrific year:

Andruw Jones (F)
(.158/.256/.249 3hr 14rbi)
No, that’s not quite right…

Andruw Jones ()
(.158/.256/.249 3hr 14rbi)
The pig is closer, but not exactly…

Andruw Jones ()
(.158/.256/.249 3hr 14rbi)

Ahh, there we go. Andruw Jones is a criminal. Yes, much better. Andruw Jones stole money from the Dodgers at such a rate that it’s making Jason Schmidt and Darren Dreifort look like sensible investments.

This year? We get to talk about the ascension of Matt Kemp to stardom and into the discussion of “best all-around centerfielder in baseball”.

Yep. This is better.

85toppsmattkemp

Matt Kemp (A+!!)
(.297/.352/.490 26hr 101rbi 34sb)

I should have been looking forward to writing about Kemp’s incredible year more than anyone else, yet instead I worked backwards and wrote Repko and Paul’s pieces below first. Why? Because Kemp made such a huge step forward this year that I really feel like there’s no way I can recap it in such a way to really do him justice.

In one sense, the numbers really speak for themselves, don’t they? #1 in VORP among all MLB CF, by a nearly 20% margin. Improvement from 2008 in nearly every offensive statistic – BA, OBP, SLG, OPS, K/BB, WPA. Perhaps even most impressive, marked improvement from years past on defense, and while I think it was pretty clear with the naked eye that he much improved his routes to the ball, the numbers back it up as well. His fielding metrics improved across the board.

But it’s more than just reading off the numbers. Despite Joe Torre’s insane insistence on batting Kemp 8th for much of the year, Kemp really took that step from “untapped potential” to “a star right now“. Remember his heroics in Milwaukee back in July when he tied the Dodger season record for grand slams in the top of the 10th – and then saved the game with a Mays-esque over-the-shoulder game-ending grab in the bottom of the frame? You almost felt like he was doing things like that on a regular basis. When was the last time you felt the Dodgers had a young player who was without question going to be a superstar? Clayton Kershaw’s probably on that path, but he hasn’t achieved quite enough yet. Perhaps Adrian Beltre in 2004, but that was tempered by his imminent departure via free agency. For me, it’s Mike Piazza circa 1995. That’s the kind of player Kemp can be.

Granted, Kemp tailed off badly at the end of the year (.637 OPS in Sept/Oct) and in the playoffs (7 hits in 8 games, though 2 were homers). On the other hand, he’ll still be just 25 on Opening Day next year. Here’s the truly scary thing; Kemp was, as we showed earlier, the best CF in baseball this year. If he put up performances like this every year, that’s an incredibly valuable player. But at his age, and with his improvements, you likely haven’t seen his best yet.

Now please, please, sign him to a long-term deal, Ned!

85toppsjasonrepkoJason Repko (so long!)
(.000/.143/.000 0hr 1rbi)

Here’s a fun fact for you: Jason Repko is the longest-tenured Dodger, having made his LA debut way back on April 6, 2005.  If that doesn’t really sound like that long ago, let me remind you that the starting pitchers in that day’s game against the Giants were Odalis Perez and Kirk Reuter, and Repko batted 2nd in Jim Tracy’s Dodger lineup that also featured Cesar Izturis, J.D. Drew, Jose Valentin, and Jason Phillips, on a team that would go on to lose 91 games. So yeah, he’s been around for a while, though thanks to several injuries and general mediocrity he’s managed just 478 MLB plate appearances in his career- when he wasn’t busy ruining Rafael Furcal’s 2007.

Here’s another fact for you: Repko’s status as “longest-tenured Dodger” almost certainly ended with a strikeout on the last day of the regular season, as he’s arbitration-eligible and has done almost nothing to justify a raise on his 2009 salary of $500k. His various stints with the big club have produced just a 74 OPS+, and in yet another year in AAA (which he first reached in 2004) he had a ghastly 80/24 K/BB rate while putting up an .800 OPS. At 29 in December, he’s being passed on the organization ladder by younger outfielders like Xavier Paul and Jamie Hoffmann, with more on the way.

Still, Repko’s not without his uses. His speed, strong throwing arm, and ability to play all 3 outfield spots make him a decent 4th outfielder, but as tenuous as that value is, it’s all but invisible on a team like the Dodgers that’s stacked with outfielders both talented and highly-paid. Believe it or not, Repko’s been in the Dodger organization since 1999 (making his debut as the SS on the Great Falls Dodgers that went 29-47 and featured just one other player who’d make it to the bigs, Shane Victorino), so it’s a little melancholy to predict his imminent unemployment.

But go he must; for there’s no room at this inn for a nearly-30 backup outfielder who’s making more than the minimum and can’t really hit. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

85toppsxavierpaulXavier Paul (MRSA)
(.214/.313/.500 1hr 1rbi)

Speaking of “reasons that Jason Repko’s Dodger career is likely coming to an end”, we have Xavier Paul, who’s 4 years younger and put up an OPS 78 points higher as Isotope teammates this season.

That OPS would be .878, good for 15th in the PCL if he’d had enough at-bats to qualify. That’s pretty good on its face; what makes that even better is that’s the fifth consecutive year in which his OPS has improved, dating back to his .721 mark as a 20-year-old in High A ball in 2005. With many young players, you see some struggles as they progress against tougher competition, but Paul has only improved with each level he advances.

That progression plus his hot start to 2009 and a throwing arm described as “elite” made him the natural choice to be recalled when Manny was suspended in May, and though he spent most of his 11 games in the bigs as a pinch-hitter (starting once in CF and once in RF), he did manage to put out his first big league dinger.

Of course, Paul’s season was ruined when he scraped his knee in Florida and contracted a particularly nasty staph infection, which sidelined him into September, where he made a few token appearances back in AAA before their season ended.

Assuming that he’s fully healthy, Paul has little left to prove in AAA, but is of course blocked by the logjam in the Dodger outfield. Since his strong arm makes him a much better choice for a backup outfielder than Juan Pierre, let’s count Xavier Paul as “reason #149184 it’s time to trade Pierre”. Otherwise, Paul gets another year in New Mexico, waiting for an injury at the big league level or a trade of his own.

Next! Andre Ethier’s heroics! Who the hell is Jamie Hoffmann?! Mitch Jones’ dream come true! It’s right field!

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