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Matt Kemp is back with the Dodgers and remains a crowd favorite

Matt Kemp is back with the Dodgers and remains a crowd favorite
Dodgers left fielder Matt Kemp runs on to the field during pregame introductions at a Cactus League opening game against the Chicago White Sox at Camelback Ranch Stadium. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

If the Camelback Ranch receptions are any indication, the Dodgers faithful remain faithful to Matt Kemp.

Of the players who started Kemp's last game with the Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw is the only other one still in the organization. Kershaw never left, of course. Kemp is back, but only after a three-year exile to San Diego and Atlanta, and after he had written that he had left Los Angeles with "a reputation for being selfish, lazy and a bad teammate." He is back primarily for the accounting voodoo that helps the Dodgers avoid paying a luxury tax this year.

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Back in blue, and all appears to be forgiven. The fans gathered for daily workouts crowd around him for autographs, one waving an oversized cardboard cutout of Kemp's head. He got the loudest applause from Saturday's sold-out crowd at Camelback Ranch.

"It's exciting. It's cool," Kemp said. "I missed it."

None of the adulation matters if Kemp does not play well, but he hit his second home run of the spring in Saturday's 14-6 rout of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He is batting .308.

The Dodgers might still trade him to a team that develops a need for a designated hitter. However, his right-handed power bat could be increasingly appealing to the Dodgers, who could face left-handers Madison Bumgarner and Robbie Ray four times in the first 15 games this season. On Saturday, Kemp homered off Ray, who went 3-0 with a 2.27 earned-run average in five regular-season starts against the Dodgers last season.

Kemp figures his adjustment to left field can be eased with defensive positioning, and not just from the Dodgers' analytics.

"When you've got the young guys out there, I just tell them to go get everything, and I'll go get the stuff on the side," he said with a smile. "That's what Manny [Ramirez] used to do to me."

Kemp said he has told team officials how much he wants to stay in L.A. He sees a happier and more harmonious clubhouse than when he last played for the Dodgers, and he has not finished within 18 games of first place since he left.

"Everybody's gunning for you when you're a good team," Kemp said. "It's the Dodgers. Anybody that sees that jersey or comes to L.A., they want to beat the Dodgers. Even me being on the other side in San Diego, we wanted to beat the Dodgers.

"When I was in San Diego, it was all Dodger fans. They just took over. It was like a home game for the Dodgers. It was crazy. This is fun."

Injury scrambles bullpen

The Dodgers' most significant acquisition in free agency walked into the clubhouse in a sling Saturday. Tom Koehler will start the season on the disabled list, and the reliever said he could miss weeks or months because of a strained right shoulder.

"We're optimistic he'll be back this year," manager Dave Roberts said.

Koehler was the only free-agent pitcher the Dodgers signed to a major league contract, and he had been projected as a primary setup man for closer Kenley Jansen.

Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations, said the injury did not make it more likely that the team would acquire a reliever via trade or free agency, in part because the timetable for Koehler's return is unclear and in part because the search for depth is ongoing.

"Deals that made sense three days ago will still make sense," Friedman said. "And I don't think the opposite is true: I don't think something is going to make more sense that didn't three days ago."

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The list of available free-agent relievers — including Joe Blanton, Drew Storen and Huston Street — is not inspiring.

In addition to Jansen, Roberts listed right-handers Pedro Baez and Ross Stripling and left-handers Scott Alexander and Tony Cingrani as locks for what is expected to be an eight-man bullpen.

Right-handers Josh Fields, Wilmer Font, Yimi Garcia, J.T. Chargois and left-handers Adam Liberatore and Edward Paredes are among the candidates to fill the remaining bullpen spots.

The Dodgers had 14 pitchers make at least 10 relief appearances last season. The one who emerged as their primary setup man, Brandon Morrow, started the season in the minor leagues.

"It's similar to the last couple of years," Friedman said. "We didn't know exactly, standing here in spring training, who would be pitching meaningful innings for us. But we knew we had enough options and interesting guys with compelling upside stories that we would figure it out. And it's not that different right now."

The Dodgers signed Koehler for $2 million, with the intention of converting him from a struggling starter into a dominant reliever. The Colorado Rockies spent $104 million last winter on relievers Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee, three of the 13 relief pitchers that signed for at least $10 million.

The volatility in the performance of relief pitchers generally makes the Dodgers reluctant to spend heavily on them.

"We also signed a closer for $80 million," Friedman said, chuckling. "So it's case by case."

Koehler said the injury was diagnosed as a mild strain of the anterior capsule, with his return dependent on how rapidly the strain heals. He said surgery "was not mentioned."

"I came here to help this team win a World Series," Koehler said. "If that starts a little later in the season, so be it."

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin

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