Matt Kemp went down swinging, his last two thumps on the door of 40 homers echoing emptily into the Arizona night, his season ending Wednesday in a wild strikeout that set the tone for the next hitter.
Now batting, the Dodgers, and they’d better be hacking.
Kemp’s failed attempt at a couple bits of history in the season’s final days has set the stage for the off-season pursuit of a different sort of record. It’s not the triple crown or the 40-40 club, it’s something far more difficult and infinitely more valuable.
In the next six months, the Dodgers need to make Kemp the highest-paid player in Dodgers history, or this upcoming season will probably be his final one in a Dodgers uniform.
In the next six months, an organization that has never paid anyone more than $105 million will need to almost double that figure to lock up their best player in a long-term deal or he will probably leave as a free agent next winter.
Forget six months, can they even do this any time in the next two years? Considering they are a bankrupt team with a broke owner who wouldn’t spend this kind of money even when they were competing for championships, a suitable contract now will take the kind of magic that even Kemp’s 39 homers, 126 runs batted in, .324 average and 40 steals cannot match.
“This is not going to be a cheap deal; you’re talking about some pretty heavy dollars,” said Dave Stewart, Kemp’s agent, on Thursday.
Kemp says he wants to be here. Stewart is not making any threats and continually reiterates that he just works for Kemp. But facts are facts, and the Dodgers are on the most precarious of clocks.
Fact: Stewart, using his experience as both a big league player and executive, will recommend that Kemp stop all negotiating when the 2012 season begins, much as Albert Pujols refused to deal with the St. Louis Cardinals this season.
“I know it is not a good thing to negotiate a contract during the course of the year; it’s just not,” Stewart said. “The player needs to be clear of mind and just do his job, and the organization also doesn’t need the distraction.”
Fact: Stewart will also recommend that once the 2012 season ends, Kemp should entertain offers from everywhere. It will be a market that could include a vacancy in center field for the New York Yankees, where the guaranteed portion of Curtis Granderson’s contract is expiring, and you know what that means.
“I would think if the process goes into next year, past arbitration, it just makes sense you find out what the market is going to bear,” Stewart said. “I work for Matt, but if you ask me how I would advise him, that’s how I would advise him.”
Fact: There will be no hometown discounts such as the one given the Angels this summer by Jered Weaver, who was born here and still lives here. Kemp was born in Oklahoma and lives in Arizona and, although he clearly loves Los Angeles, he has the savvy demeanor to be a star anywhere.
The Dodgers know the obstacles. They understand the time limits. But do they have the money? Even if they backload a lengthy deal that would burden the potential new owners, how does Frank McCourt have the cash for more than a one-year arbitration hit?
Ned Colletti, the Dodgers’ general manager, must think he has the money, or at least the promise of the money, because he said he plans to go for it.
“We’ll sit down and see if we can hammer out something long-term with him; that’s my intent,” Colletti said. “I asked [Matt] a year ago, let’s see how good you can be, give me max effort … and he’s obviously done that … so now we sit down.”
It was max effort that will result in mad prices. I was looking for comparables for a potential Kemp contract — Carl Crawford, Alfonso Soriano? — when I finally phoned Stewart and told him I couldn’t find a neighborhood for what will be a 28-year-old MVP type with historic offensive numbers who plays a solid center field and steals crazy bases.
“There is no neighborhood,” said Stewart with a laugh. “I couldn’t find one, either. This is new ground.”
Crawford, last year’s free-agent star, signed with Boston for seven years at $142 million. For Kemp, that will probably be a starting point, and who knows where it could end? Dodgers fans can only hope it’s not in New York or Chicago or — gasp — Anaheim.
“If we have a concern at all, it’s going to be, are we going to be able to get paid what we’re trying to get,” Stewart said.
Stewart is an agent with only 10 clients, but he considers them all as family, and is unafraid to fight for their happiness. Remember, it was Stewart who stirred up the Dodgers’ clubhouse last season when he publicly ripped the coaching staff for its perceived mistreatment of Kemp, leading to a coaching overhaul that has made Kemp comfortable and happy.
“Last year there was a bad coaching staff, this year Matt felt so much better going to the ballpark every day; it made all the difference,” said Stewart, referring to the departures of Bob Schaefer and Larry Bowa. “If somebody was going to trash me for saying what I said, that’s fine, I’m used it, I was trying to protect my player.”
Stewart is not afraid of the heat. Kemp proved this year that he shines in the heat. The Dodgers are entering this battle with their hands full and their options empty and do they have a chance? Does anyone really have any idea?
Colletti could always wait for the cavalry that would be new ownership. But unless McCourt suddenly gives up his white-knuckled grip on the team, it doesn’t appear the new bosses would get here fast enough, so now we all must wait and wonder and hope for the hacks.
“We’ll be good listeners,” said Stewart, and so will the rest of us.