Matt Kemp could crack the Dodgers’ opening-day lineup
Four more home games in Arizona. Two exhibition games at Dodger Stadium. Then it is go time for the Dodgers, and the guy playing left field on opening day just might be Matt Kemp.
“It’s against the Giants,” Kemp said Friday.
It also was against the Giants 10 years ago, the first time Kemp cracked the Dodgers’ opening-day lineup. The Giants’ leadoff batter was an outfielder named Dave Roberts. Kemp scored the Dodgers’ first run. The Dodgers won.
“Opening day in L.A. has always been very special,” Kemp said. “People are talking about it right now. They can’t wait. It’s very loud in there on Opening Day. Everybody comes. You see everybody you can name. It’s always been very exciting.
“Of course you think about it. I think everybody is pretty much over spring training at this point.”
The title “biggest surprise in camp” generally is bestowed upon some phenom, but Kemp might win that title going away in the Dodgers’ camp this spring. The Dodgers acquired him from the Atlanta Braves for accounting purposes, bringing him back in a salary-driven swap so the team might avoid paying a luxury tax this year.
Roberts is now the Dodgers’ manager. When Kemp reported to spring training, Roberts said he was surprised to see Kemp had lost 40 pounds.
“When we acquired him, we didn’t know what kind of shape he was in,” Roberts said. “We went on what he looked like last year. … The way he came in initially made a statement in itself.”
The Dodgers weren’t counting on Kemp, so they weren’t keeping close track of his winter progress.
“They pretty much left me to get ready on my own,” Kemp said. “I’m a grown man. I needed to get in better shape. I did it. I feel better. It just feels good to be back wearing this uniform.”
It is not a given that Kemp starts on opening day, since Enrique Hernandez is a career .467 batter against Giants starter Madison Bumgarner. Roberts, ever cautious, would not even say it is a given that Kemp had made the team.
The Dodgers had hoped to flip Kemp, probably to an American League team that could use him as a designated hitter. But now Kemp could end up the Dodgers’ left fielder, and not just against left-handed pitchers.
“He is definitely not, nor has he ever been, a platoon guy,” Roberts said. “With Matt, certainly, platoon doesn’t even come into play.”
Kemp is batting .333 this spring, and he is tied for the team lead with four home runs. Andrew Toles is the most likely candidate to start in left field against right-handers, but Kemp appears to have earned plenty of playing time on a team that initially had no intention of playing him at all.
“When you make the trade, and you look at the season that guys had last year, and who we had coming back, we were already a very good team without Matt,” Roberts said. “But to have a former All-Star in as good a shape he has been in in years, and to add him to the mix, it only increases the level of competition and play for everyone around him. That’s good for all of us.”
Walker with fire
It is debatable whether Walker Buehler is one of the Dodgers’ five best starters right now, but it is not debatable that he would challenge opposing batters with a look significantly distinct from anyone else in the projected rotation.
The Dodgers optioned their best prospect to the minor leagues this week, but they still let him start Friday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Buehler threw two hitless innings, with a fastball clocking 97 to 99 mph.
The Dodgers plan to limit his innings in the minor leagues, in the hope he can help the major league team later this season, either as a starter or as a bridge to closer Kenley Jansen.
“It’s above my pay grade,” Buehler said. “I’m not too worried about it. I’m 23. I feel good with where I’m at and what I’m looking at trying to accomplish. Hopefully, it all works out. The biggest thing is this team winning. If I’m a part of that, great.”
None of the Dodgers’ projected starters had an average fastball velocity that ranked in the top 50 in the major leagues last season, according to Fangraphs data among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings. The average velocity ranged from 92.7 mph (Clayton Kershaw) to 89.0 mph (Rich Hill).
Still, of the seven pitchers with an average velocity at or below 89.0 mph, six appeared in the World Series within the past four years: Hill, Dallas Keuchel (2017 Astros), Bartolo Colon (2015 Mets), Josh Tomlin (2016 Indians), Kyle Hendricks (2016 Cubs) and Jason Vargas (2014 Royals).
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin
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