Dodgers aren’t about to trade Matt Kemp . . . yet
It could be a missed sign, or a baserunning blunder, or a ragged route to a fly ball.
Matt Kemp will do something to frustrate the Dodgers’ coaching staff. Next thing you know, some national expert will whisper that the Dodgers just might trade Kemp. This is not a coincidence.
These whispers will be heard again soon, as we count down the final 13 days toward the trade deadline. Pay them no heed. The man in charge says he has no interest in trading the Dodgers’ most talented player.
“I’ve never floated his name,” General Manager Ned Colletti said. “He’s a gifted, five-tool player. He’s getting better and better. He’s had a tough couple of months. It’s a baseball career. It’s not a baseball two months.
“I have no intention of moving him.”
On the surface, the thought of moving him would be lunacy. The Dodgers need a pitcher or three, desperately, but trading Kemp to get one would blow a huge hole in an outfield already thinned by injuries to Manny Ramirez and Reed Johnson.
Beneath the surface, the thought of moving him also would be lunacy. Kemp is 25. So is Xavier Paul. So is Brandon Wood.
Kemp has a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove on his mantel, already. Of the 39 position players to appear in the All-Star game, Texas Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus was the only one younger than Kemp.
The question for the Dodgers is not how to get rid of Kemp but how to get the most out of him, and whether they have the coaching staff to do so.
Kemp grew up a basketball player, with the mad skills that translate quickly into acrobatic catches in center field, enviable power at bat and stolen bases galore. He rocketed to the major leagues after 48 games at double A and 83 at triple A, not nearly enough time for him to master the nuances of running routes to fly balls, plate discipline and reading pickoff moves.
“When you have talent, a lot of times you let your talent take care of you,” Dodgers Manager Joe Torre said. “That’s an adjustment you have to make. You need to grow with your ability.”
Therein lies the dilemma for a coaching staff tired of waiting for the fundamentals to sink in.
If Kemp hits seven home runs in 10 games, as he did in April, the Dodgers can exercise a little more patience with his mistakes. If he hits .230 in June and .196 in July, the Dodgers might be a bit more insistent about reminding him to back up second base on throws from the catcher.
Kemp snapped, after what he considered one too many reminders. Torre benched him and wouldn’t say why, until Kemp finally approached him three days later.
We can sympathize with Torre, who appeared to be running out of ways to get Kemp’s attention. The behind-the-scenes reminders had not worked. And, just three days before Kemp snapped, Torre did what he so rarely does, criticize a player publicly, after Kemp got picked off by Angels closer Brian Fuentes on a spin move the coaches had warned about.
But, by keeping Kemp out of the lineup until he begged forgiveness, the old-school manager and his old-school coaching staff played by old-school rules that no longer fly. If Kemp had sinned for the Angels, Mike Scioscia would have summoned him to the office, immediately after the game or before the next one, read him the riot act and moved on.
Scioscia also checks in with his players during batting practice. On the day Kemp snapped, Torre never set foot on the field during batting practice. He held court with the media, then visited with some Hollywood friends.
Torre says he holds informal meetings with players all the time, on the field and in the clubhouse. He tries to minimize closed-door meetings, he says, because he does not want players to get that uneasy feeling of getting called into the principal’s office.
He says he has absolutely not given up on Kemp.
“The one thing I look at in thinking about how high an upside is, is how the player plays under pressure,” Torre said. “To me, Matt plays better under pressure.
“The one thing he’s proven to me is he continually wants to get better. He ran into a roadblock in June. He wasn’t getting better. It frustrated the hell out of him.”
Perhaps Kemp and the Dodgers break up, soon if not now.
Kemp just might be a little sensitive, given that he walked into a divided clubhouse and endured the wrath of Jeff Kent, that the Dodgers signed Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones to play center field before giving him the chance that resulted in a Gold Glove, and that he has been called out publicly by his manager and general manager.
“Baseball is like family,” said Dave Stewart, the agent for Kemp. “Sometimes you get a good match. Sometimes you don’t. If you marry the right woman, you’re married for life. If not, you get divorced.
“This has a chance to be a beautiful marriage. I think both sides are taking strides to get themselves in the right direction. I think Matt is a great athlete. It’s tough to find players like him. It would be a shame if that doesn’t work itself out so he can stay in Los Angeles. I’m optimistic he’ll be a Dodger for a long time.”
Kemp is having a poor season, or so goes the perception. He is on pace to hit 29 home runs and steal 27 bases, to score 106 runs and drive in 94.
He has plenty to improve upon. He is on pace to obliterate the club record for strikeouts, which he set two years ago. He ranks second in the National League in caught stealing. Of the players in Friday’s starting lineup, he had the lowest on-base percentage.
But, from the view of the veteran with the locker adjacent to Kemp’s, he is far from uncoachable.
“He wants to learn,” Garret Anderson said. “He’ll take constructive criticism from teammates. He asks me things. This is a person that wants to learn.
“He’ll figure it out. He’s a talented player. He’s a smart player. He’s 25. His rope should be a little longer. He’s still learning the game.”
Kemp has played in every game this season. Since the start of the 2008 season, the Dodgers have played 415 games, with Kemp playing all but 10.
“To me, when you see a guy go out on the field and play every day, it’s hard to say he doesn’t care,” Anderson said. “The guys who look for ways to get out of the lineup, those are the guys who don’t care.
“He takes it out on the field every day. That goes a long way in my book.”
When Anderson came up as an outfielder with the Angels, so did Jim Edmonds and Darin Erstad and Tim Salmon. Edmonds did not mesh with the old-school manager and several old-school teammates, and the Angels traded him to the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Angels got Adam Kennedy, who hit three home runs in the game that clinched their one and only World Series berth. But Edmonds prospered in St. Louis, earning three All-Star invitations and twice hitting 40 home runs.
The next Angels outfielder to hit 40 home runs will be the first.