BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers know what Matt Kemp is capable of, and should keep him

His market value has never been lower, and the risk that he could haunt them elsewhere has never been greater. There is also a lot of upside to having four starting outfielders, given who they are.

Matt Kemp

Matt Kemp struggled with injuries in 2013, but the Dodgers would be making a mistake if they traded the two-time All-Star center fielder. (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images / October 15, 2013)

He has lost his standing in the clubhouse. He has lost his way on the field. His shoulder is scarred. His ankle is weak. His contract is a nightmare.

This would be a perfect time for the Dodgers to trade Matt Kemp.

Which makes it the perfect time to keep him.

As the Dodgers scour the lobby of an expensive Florida hotel this week in search of the final pieces for a 2014 World Series run, here's hoping they realize their biggest potential addition is already in uniform.

It's worth betting on Matt Kemp to become Matt Kemp again, the rewards far outweighing the risks, his 2011 greatness not buried so deeply that its remnants can't be unearthed. His MVP was stolen by cheater Ryan Braun, his clubhouse leadership has been overtaken by Hanley Ramirez, his athleticism has been hampered by injuries, but he's still just 29 and has the strength — if he has the will — to find himself again.

Would you take 25 home runs, 100 runs batted in and 20 stolen bases from your center fielder? Kemp is still capable of those kinds of numbers, which, compared with the $153 million handed to Jacoby Ellsbury by the New York Yankees, could make the remaining $128 million on Kemp's contract a relative bargain.

"Our hope is that at Matt's age, and with his appetite to be a great player, he can return and become one again," Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said Tuesday during a phone interview from baseball's winter meetings.

Colletti couldn't promise he wouldn't trade Kemp. This week, Kemp's agent, Dave Stewart, told The Times' Dylan Hernandez he would be "surprised" if Kemp were not traded. Most believe that because the Dodgers have four starting outfielders, they must trade one of them, and Kemp is considered the most likely candidate because of the perception the Dodgers no longer want to hassle with him.

That belief is misguided, starting with the idea the Dodgers don't need four starting outfielders. Oh yeah? Even if those four guys are hobbled Carl Crawford and Kemp, combustible Yasiel Puig and career-.235-against-lefties Andre Ethier?

There are 486 starts for outfielders during the regular season, meaning each man would hypothetically get 121 starts. In the last two full seasons, of those four players, because of injuries and Puig's stint in the minor leagues, only Ethier has averaged more than 121 games.

Put it another way: In the 107 games the Dodgers played last season with all four outfielders on the roster, only twice were all four available to play.

The outfield makeup of two left-handed hitters and two right-handed hitters gives Manager Don Mattingly great flexibility. That one of them must sit in the dugout most nights would add the aura of competition, which will help maintain the consistent focus of an easily distracted player such as Puig. In attempting to teach their precocious kid, the Dodgers' only leverage against his difficulty in accepting instruction is the bench. With four outfielders, there will always be a seat waiting.

"For many reasons, I cannot overemphasize the importance of depth there,'' said Colletti.

The Dodgers should at least start the season with all four guys. But in the unlikely event they were offered a top third baseman or pitcher for one of the outfielders, a deal Colletti probably couldn't refuse, the player being sent out should not be Kemp. His market value has never been lower, and the risk that he could haunt them elsewhere has never been greater.

Are the Dodgers worried about his strange fluxes in weight and muscle mass, and wondering whether he will ever again be at full strength? Certainly. Did the Dodgers think he lost some of his leadership credibility last season when his ankle was injured in Washington on a play at home plate that could have been avoided if he was hustling? Everyone in that clubhouse wondered.

But something seemed to happen with Kemp late in the season that should give the Dodgers hope. As he hopped around the clubhouse on crutches while his team waltzed to within two victories of the World Series without him, he seemed to gain humility and perspective. Before a playoff game in Atlanta, he stood outside the dugout and looked wistfully at players stretching around him as if he weren't even there.

"You never realize how much you appreciate this until it is taken away from you," he said at the time. "I'd give anything right now for a chance to be back here."

Kemp was full of this same determination in the winter after the 2010 season, after his toughness had been challenged by former coaches Bob Schaefer and Larry Bowa. The Dodgers were so uncertain of his attitude that they brought in tough first base coach Davey Lopes to help Kemp stay driven and connected.

You know what happened next. An MVP season happened next. Kemp led the league with 39 home runs, 126 RBIs, and 115 runs with 40 stolen bases.

He will probably never approach those numbers again. But the Dodgers are a different team with him in the lineup, and by all reports Kemp is working hard to get back there.

"His medical condition is not career-threatening or even career-changing. He's in his prime years, and do we believe a comeback is possible?'' said Colletti. "Absolutely."

Now that the Dodgers have Matt Kemp right where they want him, they should absolutely let that comeback happen here.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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