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Matt Kemp gets closer to opening day assignment for Dodgers

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A curious message was inked on the cardboard box in front of Matt Kemp’s locker, less than 48 hours before the Dodgers were set to depart from Camelback Ranch. All around the room, the players loaded their gear into boxes. Only Kemp's featured an extra note for the clubhouse attendants back in Los Angeles.

“DO NOT UNPACK,” the box read.

Such a message would have been fitting in December, when the Dodgers acquired Kemp from Atlanta, or January, when the team tried to move his $43 million contract and found no suitors. When camp opened in February, though, Kemp was still a member of the organization. And on opening day next Thursday at Dodger Stadium, a once-remote possibility appears likely to come to fruition: Matt Kemp will be a Dodger. He might even bat third in the lineup.

“There’s nothing like playing opening day at Dodger Stadium,” Kemp said. “You can’t really describe it. It’s indescribable. There’s a lot going on. You see doves and things flying all over the place.”

Traded away after the 2014 season, Kemp never expected a reunion with the Dodgers. Kemp was reacquired this winter and the organization telegraphed his impending exit. Except a deal was never formulated. Kemp showed up in better shape, an estimated 40 pounds lighter than he was with Atlanta last season, capable of handling regular work in left field.

Kemp acquitted himself well at the plate this spring, with four homers and a .302 batting average heading into Thursday’s game against the Angels. Manager Dave Roberts penciled Kemp into the No. 3 spot for Thursday, though he cautioned against reading too much into one Cactus League lineup.

But with Justin Turner nursing a broken wrist until at least May, the Dodgers are in the market for a right-handed hitter to replace him at the top of the lineup. On most days, Roberts is likely to stack the left-handed-hitting duo of Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger in the second and third spots, with Chris Taylor leading off. But Kemp figures to be Turner’s likely replacement, so long as he keeps performing.

“I think I had a good spring training,” Kemp said. “I feel really good, moving around good. It’s easier to hit in a lineup that’s so deep. We’ve got one after another, guys just backing each other. It’s a dangerous lineup, man, no matter how you put it.”

The team is still trying to figure out how to handle Turner’s absence. Kemp is likely to split time in left field with either Joc Pederson or Andrew Toles. Toles has out-performed Pederson this spring, but Toles missed the majority of 2017 with a torn ACL and the team may want him to get at-bats on a daily basis in the minors.

As Kemp spoke to a semi-circle of reporters, closer Kenley Jansen piped up to interrupt once or twice. Jansen grinned when someone asked if Kemp felt the reality of his opportunity, with the start of the season so close.

“It’s been real since January,” Jansen said. “Come on, you guys.”

“Kenley can’t stop talking, man,” Kemp said. “They gave him some money, now he talks.”

Kemp smiled and made his point.

“It feels real,” Kemp said. “I’m happy it’s real. I’m excited we get to go to L.A. on Saturday.”

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MLBPA visits Camelback Ranch

Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLBPA, led a meeting with Dodgers players that lasted more than an hour on Thursday afternoon as part of the union’s annual visits to all 30 clubs.

The players, Clark noted, are more animated this year than ever before. The winter was not kind to free agents, as teams cut back on spending and showed a lack of willingness to commit long-term contracts to aging veterans. The Dodgers were part of this trend, signing only one player to a multi-year deal: A two-year, $2 million contract for 39-year-old second baseman Chase Utley.

Clark acknowledged the Dodgers’ sudden frugality, but recognized its purpose. The team wants to get beneath the $197 million luxury-tax threshold so it can avoid paying penalties for the first time in five years. The team appears committing to blowing past the threshold hold next winter, when Clayton Kershaw could join a class of free agents that includes Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Andrew Miller.

“There’s a provision in the C.B.A. that allows them to reset their taxes,” Clark said. “The question becomes, what are they going to do next?”

Clark said he spoke with Jansen, who had mentioned over the winter that the players might need to go on strike in order to achieve their goals. Jansen declined to discuss the nature of Clark’s message.

Clark did intimate that the union will press Major League Baseball on reopening negotiations of the collective bargaining agreement, which expires after the 2021 season. It is unclear if commissioner Rob Manfred would be open to to that.

“There is a C.B.A. in place,” Clark said. “There are always conversations that can happen. And there are always legal avenues to explore that may affect change in the nearer term versus the longer term.

“Whenever you come off a historically interesting offseason, you take a look at what options you may have to help facilitate that conversation to better appreciate what it is that can happen in the near term and in the coming free-agent offseason. About the best I can say to you is we are exploring each and every one of those opportunities.”

Hill gets back on the horse

Rich Hill logged six innings in a minor-league game against the White Sox on Tuesday, bouncing back from a one-out disaster against Kansas City last week. The Dodgers had said Hill was supposed to pitch on Thursday, but Hill completed his assignment two days before that.

“It really happened,” Hill said when reporters questioned the existence of this minor-league affair. “There were uniforms and everything.”

Hill is scheduled to pitch during the Freeway Series next week against the Angels. He is slotted into the fourth spot in the starting rotation.

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