Matt Kemp trade a sign that even Dodgers are playing by new rules
Four summers ago, I sat across a steakhouse table from Matt Kemp at what seemed to be a special time for him. Kemp, then 26 years old, appeared to be transforming from a gifted raw athlete into the type of superstar for whom the Dodgers had been waiting for years: Derek Jeter with a left coast swagger, a player who would wear blue script across his chest for the next decade or more and become not just the face of his team, but also of his town.
Kemp wasn't so sure about the last part. "Blake Griffin, that's one of my homeboys, he's a monster," he said. "L.A.'s about to be his city, man. He's going to take over, after Kobe. Me? I just like playing baseball. I ain't trying to take over no city."
His numbers, by the end of that 2011 season, suggested otherwise. He batted .324 with 39 home runs, 126 RBI and 40 stolen bases and finished a close second to Milwaukee's Ryan Braun in the NL MVP voting, although that seemed a spot too low then and still does now. Three days before the vote was announced, Kemp had signed a contract extension for eight years and $160 million that cemented him as the Dodgers' cornerstone. It would keep him in Los Angeles for what sounded like forever — until 2019, when he would turn 35.
"I love this city, the fans and just [being] a part of this as a Dodgers player," Kemp said at the press conference after he signed. "Like Derek Jeter with the Yankees, I would like to spend the rest of my career here and be part of a dynasty and see this thing grow. I know we have the opportunity to have something special here."
Kemp's opportunity lasted just three years. On Thursday morning, the Dodgers agreed to send him and catcher Tim Federowicz two hours south, to San Diego, in return for a three-player package that includes catcher Yasmani Grandal and pitching prospects Joe Wieland and Zach Eflin; L.A. will also pay a significant portion — rumored to be between $25 million and $32 million — of the $107 million left on Kemp's contract.
The trade would not have happened had Kemp continued to play to his 2011 standard, in which he became the first player in nearly half a century to rank among his league's top three in batting average, home runs, RBI and stolen bases. He did not, due largely to a series of injuries — to his hamstrings, his ankles and, most seriously, his left shoulder — that have necessitated six trips to the disabled list and three surgeries over the past three years, sapping his power and speed.
Kemp is not the type to complain about his injuries, but he is also not the type to completely hide their impact on his emotions, as he suggested to me in the steakhouse in 2011. "Baseball's like a love-hate relationship," he said. "When you're doing good, everything's just perfect. When it's bad, you're just figuring out how to get back to being good."
That process took a toll on Kemp, and he could be periodically sullen. By the second half of last season, though, he seemed to figure it out again. He hit .309 with 17 home runs and 54 RBI — he led the NL in post-All-Star-break homers — and he went 6-for-17 in Los Angeles' NLDS loss to St. Louis. It seemed as if that resurgence might solidify Kemp's role in the Dodgers' long-term plans; as it turned out, what it did was make him an asset valuable enough to trade.
The Dodgers are now under new management, their front office led by the so-called Small Market Superfriends of president Andrew Friedman (formerly of the Rays), general manager Farhan Zaidi (formerly of the Athletics) and senior vice president of baseball operations Josh Byrnes (formerly of the Diamondbacks and Padres). Each of those three found success with their previous franchises — all of which had a sliver of L.A.'s financial wherewithal — for many reasons, a central one being that those clubs steadfastly refused to get attached to players. A player's value was derived from the relation of what he was being paid to what he was producing (or what he could be expected to produce), and little more, regardless of his status in the hearts of their fans.
Friedman, Zaidi and Byrnes were hired to run the Dodgers in the same way, albeit with significantly expanded resources, and from a business standpoint, the Kemp trade is perfectly logical. Los Angeles turned an expensive, injury-prone player who has had a few good months over the past three years, whose defense is questionable and who played a position at which they had a surplus (outfield, in which Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig will still fight for time), into one who fills its biggest need (catcher) and two more with future promise.
Even so, the infiltration of brilliant small-market tactics into a big-market front office has its cost, and that was underscored on Thursday. The cost is continuity. Fans could once be sure that when a rich club signed a player like Kemp to a deal like his, their kids would grow up watching him, as kids in New York grew up with Jeter (for 20 years) and kids in Chicago grew up with Paul Konerko (for 16) and kids in Philadelphia grew up with Jimmy Rollins (for 15). That might not be true any more.
When every player is securitized, every player can be traded, no matter who he is. Now that Jeter and Konerko have retired, and Rollins is on the cusp of being dealt — coincidentally — to the Dodgers, baseball's longest-tenured players with one team are Chase Utley and David Ortiz, who debuted with, respectively, the Phillies and the Red Sox in 2003. After just 12 years, Utley is likely not long for Philadelphia, and Ortiz, at 39, is likely not long for baseball.
Had Kemp played out his contract in Los Angeles, he would have been a Dodger for 14 years, but his trade represents a reminder that players who remain with one team for anywhere approaching that length of time are significant outliers. The business of baseball has changed.
As much as they liked Matt Kemp, L.A. fans won't much care that he's gone if Friedman and his new colleagues bring them a championship, with, perhaps, Grandal behind the plate. Even so, they'll get another stark reminder of the game's new era on April 6. The Dodgers play their home opener that day, and Matt Kemp will be there, as everyone expected that he would be for each of L.A's home openers through the end of the decade. The words across his chest, though, will read San Diego.