So How Good Does Matt Kemp’s Contract Look Now?

Back in November, the Dodgers locked up outfielder Matt Kemp for the next eight years for the enormous sum of $160 million. At the time, not only was it by far the largest in Dodger history, it was the seventh-largest contract in baseball history and the largest in National League history. While we noted that the deal wasn’t entirely without risk – Kemp was just one year off a hugely disappointing 2010 and tying up that much money in any single player can easily turn sour – we were generally very happy with the outcome. As I said at the time, “if you’re going to make that gamble, making it on an athletic outfielder that you know well and who is just entering his prime is a much smarter choice than doing it on a player already into his 30s who is an uncertain commodity.” Kemp ended up finishing second in an MVP race that he probably should have won, even before Ryan Braun‘s testing issues became public, and the combination of few available free-agent bats likely to be had next winter and Kemp’s youth meaning that he’s only signed through 34 made the deal seem extremely appealing.

Besides, beyond the obvious baseball reasons for needing to retain Kemp, this was a move that had to be made from a pure public relations standpoint. After all the garbage Frank McCourt has put fans through over the last few years, and considering that the Dodgers haven’t had a homegrown star stick with the team in decades – the last two players who made it ten years with the club were the decidedly non-elite Eric Karros & Dave Hansen, who each left after 2002 – the idea of letting Kemp walk was probably more than this fractured fanbase would have been able to handle. If you had to overpay slightly to avoid that, then so be it.

All of which is to say, at the time the deal was signed just before Thanksgiving, we were all pretty happy with it, one of the few Dodger roster moves this winter which was met with something other than disdain.

Two months later, Kemp’s contract has been absolutely blown away by the mega-deals received by Albert Pujols (ten years & between $246m-268m from the Angels, depending on incentives and personal-services deals) and the nine years and $214m Prince Fielder collected from Detroit yesterday. Considering what Kemp brings to the table that neither Pujols or Fielder do, the fact that the Dodgers kept him for $54m less than Fielder and about $100m less than Pujols – over a shorter term than either – makes the Kemp deal look even better than it does the day it was signed.

Compare Kemp to Pujols. As much as I love Kemp, it’s crazy to argue that he’s a superior or even equal hitter to Pujols, who will probably be one of the five best to ever play the game when he’s done. I mean, Pujols hit .299/.366/.541 with 37 homers last year, and people were complaining it was a down year; the man is a beast. But Pujols, who turned 32 earlier this month, is nearly five years older than Kemp, and perhaps more, if you believe the constant (yet unverified) rumors that his age may not be accurate. He’s a very good baserunner, but of course doesn’t offer close to the speed Kemp provides on the bases. While he’s an excellent defensive first baseman, one of the best in the game, the mere fact that he’s limited to the least-important defensive position curtails his value. You can argue both the accuracy of WAR and how it rates Kemp on defense, it’s for that reason that only once has Pujols had a season that beats Kemp’s 2011 in rWAR, back in 2003 when he put up an obscene 10.9 mark that ranks as the 16th-best season since World War II.

Younger, $100m cheaper, more dangerous on the basepaths, playing a far more valuable defensive position, and not coming off his worst (though of course, still great) season? I think I know which deal I’d rather have.

What about Fielder, whose own youth – born just four months ahead of Kemp in 1984 – was a major selling point for him? Fielder is of course an offensive force, since his .981 OPS last year was nearly the equal of Kemp’s and because has surpassed that mark twice before. The obvious big problem with Fielder is that not only is he a first baseman, he’s a bad first baseman, ranking as perhaps the worst in the sport since he became a full-time player in 2006. While his youth is an asset, his body type most certainly is not; you could argue that on hitting alone, he’s maybe better than Kemp, but when you consider baserunning and the enormous defensive gap between the two, Kemp seems like a better bet for the future. Not only that, Fielder is getting a year more and comes with $54m in additional risk.

I liked Kemp’s deal a whole lot in November, and I like it even more now. That’s in large part because unlike Pujols and Fielder, Kemp had not yet reached free agency, when the ability to negotiate with other clubs would almost certainly have inflated his price. Great job by the Dodgers to get him secured now, before an entire season of questions about his status and an even bigger payday next winter.