Matt Kemp Is Going to Destroy Worlds

I’ve been relentlessly down on James Loney for a while now*, just like I was on Russell Martin. I’ve said that Casey Blake is cooked, Mike MacDougal isn’t to be counted on, left field is a mess, and Andre Ethier can’t hit lefties. I’m occasionally accused of being too negative, and while that might be true, there’s a lot to worry about regarding the 2011 Dodgers.

(*Regarding Loney, I’d like to note here that I’m in an NL-only draft with several of my Baseball Prospectus cohorts, in a league which requires full 40-man rosters. As you can imagine, the pickings in the lower rounds of this draft are beyond slim. We’re in the 35th round, so over 400 players are off the board. Loney remains available.)

All that being said, I do want to take this opportunity to reiterate something optimistic that I’ve been saying all winter: Matt Kemp is going to have a monster year.

This all goes back to last October, where I argued that while 2010 was definitely disappointing, particularly on defense and on the bases, as far as “disaster” years go, you can certainly do worse than a 107 OPS+ and a career-high 28 homers. That’s not excusing him, but it’s just recognizing that he wasn’t exactly Andruw Jones circa 2008, either. Remember, this is what I said about him on the final day of the season, October 3:

His clashes with the current coaching staff have been well-documented – though he seems to have a good relationship with Don Mattingly – and if there’s anyone who looks to benefit from the post-Torre era, it might just be Kemp, my early choice for the “No, Chad Billingsley’s career wasn’t dead after one bad year either, now was it?” award next year.

My positive feelings about him continued in his 2010 season in review piece later that month, where I noted that he had not only taken responsibility for his subpar year, he’d ended the season on a five-homers-in-five-games tear while ridding himself of the distractions that had derailed his season – Joe Torre, Larry Bowa, Bob Schaefer, and even Rhianna, if you believe in that sort of thing. (Rob Neyer had a great look at the shortcomings of the 2010 coaching staff, too.) Again, Kemp is not to be excused for being unable to work through all that, but nor should it be ignored that from all indications, he wasn’t getting a lot of support internally either.

My optimism increased when we learned more about how Mattingly was relating to the younger players, and particularly when his staff was finalized and it included both Tim Wallach and Davey Lopes, who’s renowned as one of – if not the best – baserunning coaches in baseball and who has seemingly made it his mission to turn Kemp around.

I bring this up today not just because Kemp has hit five homers with a .320 batting average this spring, though those are both great signs. It’s also because of Dylan Hernandez’ story on Kemp’s relationship with Lopes from today’s Los Angeles Times, which is full of Kemp and Lopes saying exactly the right things, with some real physical changes to back them up.

On Kemp’s improved relationship with Lopes as opposed to Bowa & Schaefer:

He says Lopes will help him steal more bases. The player who used to be extremely thin-skinned about his shortcomings sounds almost proud recalling how his new coach made him recognize the mistakes he used to make. He even goes out of his way to reveal that the dignified former Dodgers infielder has a sense of humor.

“We’re having fun and getting work done at the same time,” Kemp says.

Conversations with Kemp about coaches weren’t always like this. Asked last season about his coaches, Kemp often turned defensive. He said he had no problem with Bob Schaefer, the since-departed bench coach with whom he had an in-game blowup. He said the same about the also-exiled Larry Bowa, whom Stewart called out for making critical comments directed at his client.

But Kemp never said he liked Schaefer or Bowa, either.

On Lopes helping Kemp with his baserunning:

So, as soon as spring training opened, even while most position players were still at their off-season homes, Kemp and Lopes got to work on the back fields of the team’s Camelback Ranch training facility.

Standing near first base, Lopes asked Kemp to show him how he took leads and broke to second base, or how he retreated to first base on a pickoff attempt.

Lopes noticed something: wasted motion.

On Kemp being in shape…

Kemp, who lost 15 pounds while working out with professional sprinters over the winter, says he absorbed what Lopes taught him.

On Lopes improving Kemp’s defense:

Also in charge of preparing the Dodgers’ outfield, Lopes offered Kemp similar advice on playing defense.

Instead of leaning forward with hands on knees in center field, Lopes wants Kemp to stay a little more upright.

“When you set down and rise up, the ball’s already on you,” Lopes says.

I realize it’s spring, and that everyone has a nice, rosy outlook this time of the year. That’s fine, and it’ll take more than some spring dingers and saying the right things to prove Kemp right. But the signs are all there for a massive year – no one’s questioned his talent, but now he’s motivated to prove himself, with distractions gone and the right instruction in place.  

Matt Kemp is still just 26. The two-year contract he signed after 2009 is up this year. He’s got a lot to prove – and mark my words, he’s going to do it.

******

Depending on how the last week of camp shakes out, we might see as many as five spots on the 25-man roster given to players who most thought had no shot when players reported just a month ago: Aaron Miles, Hector Gimenez, Mike MacDougal, Tim Redding, and Ron Mahay. That means the team is going to have to come up with some 40-man roster spots, with the exception of Gimenez, who is already on. The roster currently sits at 39, since Ronald Belisario is on the restricted list.

Now while it’s possible all five make the squad, I doubt that’s really what’ll happen. Gimenez isn’t a lock, so his spot could open up, Mahay hasn’t been impressive, and they may choose to not keep Redding since Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla are each reportedly recovering quickly from injury. (Update: Dylan Hernandez reports that Gimenez replaced Dioner Navarro in today’s lineup, because Navarro felt something in his side while swinging today and is headed for an MRI.)

So rather than try to fit the pieces together, since there’s so much in flux, let’s look at the current 40-man and see who is most in jeopardy should more of these NRI’s make it than we think. There’s Xavier Paul, who we’ve talked about extensively, though I do think he’ll break camp on the team. There’s Jay Gibbons, whose spot may or may not really be in danger, despite my concerns. There’s even Jamie Hoffmann, who’s lost his spot before, though I think that’s unlikely.

Those outfielders are all possibilities, but I think it’s going to have to end up being old friend John Lindsey, who never really got going in camp thanks to a calf injury. There’s really no reason to keep him on the 40-man; he’s not going to make the team, and no one’s going to claim him. He’ll almost certainly be DFA’d, pass through, and end up back in Albuquerque.

Lindsey’s the obvious choice, but if more than one spot is needed, you might also look at 25-year-old Javy Guerra, a veteran of seven minor league seasons with the Dodgers. His 2.33 ERA in 28 AA games last year may look shiny, but the 7.3 BB/9 (and 5.3 career) don’t really back it up, nor does the 1.603 career WHIP. He suffered shoulder soreness last year and then had to deal with an infection caused by a cut while washing dishes this winter. Guerra reportedly has a plus fastball, and I’m sure the Dodgers would prefer to hold onto him, but at 25, he’s no longer a kid, and his struggles at AA could make him vulnerable if a spot is needed.

******

A quick heads-up from me: don’t expect much from me through the weekend. I’ll be headed to Florida to catch some spring games, in this case Astros @ Yankees on Friday, and Jays @ Phillies on Saturday. Before the inevitable response of “Florida’s not Arizona!”, don’t forget that I did go to Camelback last year.

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  1. [...] home run streak he’d carried over from the end of last season, and in terms of realizing the expectations we’ve placed on him, it was a great [...]

  2. [...] I said at the time (03/24/11): My positive feelings about him continued in his 2010 season in review piece later that month, [...]

  3. [...] the season hadn’t even started when I first really bagged on him back on March 24: (*Regarding Loney, I’d like to note here that I’m in an NL-only draft with several of my [...]

  4. [...] Kemp Is Going to Destroy Worlds”, March 24, 2011: I do want to take this opportunity to reiterate something optimistic that I’ve been saying all [...]

  5. [...] were breaking camp with so many non-roster invites, and figured that he along with John Lindsey might actually be a prime candidate for being DFA’d: Lindsey’s the obvious choice, but if more than one spot is needed, you might also look at [...]

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