The phone call that Matt Kemp never saw coming came as he was having lunch with some friends on the afternoon of Dec. 16, 2017. On the other end was his longtime agent, Larry Reynolds, with some surprising news for the veteran outfielder: The Braves—his then-team—were trading him away.
Changing cities was nothing new for Kemp: Atlanta was his third team in his last four years, and his stay there had lasted 16 months. Being dealt is an inescapable part of the business of being a baseball player, and even though Kemp had figured he was staying put with the Braves, learning that he was heading somewhere else wasn’t too huge a shock. Then Reynolds dropped a much bigger bomb.
“He kind of laughed, and I was like, are you joking with me,” Kemp says. “And he was like, you got traded, and you’ll never guess where.”
Four years earlier, the only team Kemp had ever known to that point had broken his heart by sending him to San Diego. He was a face of the Dodgers and a long-term superstar in the making for one of the game’s most venerable clubs. But then came the call telling him that his time there was done, and just like that, Matt Kemp was no longer a Los Angeles Dodger—until that December day last winter, when they suddenly brought him back.
“My agent said ‘Los Angeles,’ and I thought he was playing,” Kemp says. “I think I was in shock like everybody else. It was cool and weird at the same time.”
It was a reunion that no one expected, but it’s paid off handsomely for both parties. Halfway through his second stint with the Dodgers, the 33-year-old Kemp is raking like the old days, hitting .318/.354/.557 with 16 homers in 285 plate appearances. His 145 OPS+ is his best mark since 2014, his last year in Los Angeles, and with 1.6 Wins Above Replacement, he’s on pace for his best finish in that stat since his last All-Star campaign in ’12.
Speaking of the Midsummer Classic: With just over 2 million votes to his name in the balloting so far, Kemp is all but assured a starting spot in the National League’s outfield in Washington, D.C.—his first All-Star nod in six years. Nights like Monday against Pittsburgh, when he ripped five hits in five at-bats, including a three-run homer, make it clear the fans have made the right choice.
“He’s always been a dangerous hitter,” says Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi. “He’s just doing that at an even higher level this season.”
It’s a turnaround as unforeseen as Kemp’s return to California. Over the last three seasons, injuries had reduced him to a shadow of his MVP-caliber self at the plate and turned a dangerous base stealer into a station-to-station plodder. Excess weight had killed his range in the outfield, rendering him one of the game’s worst defenders. As he slogged through his 30s, Kemp’s career—once an unstoppable force—had hit an immovable wall.
Instead, he’s been rejuvenated in Los Angeles, not only hitting like a perennial All-Star, but also running and fielding well above average. Ticketed for a reserve role before the season, Kemp is instead making the most of his new opportunity in a familiar place.
“He never wanted to leave, but everything happened for a reason,” says Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “Because he left, we’re getting an even better Matt Kemp the second time around.”
The calculus that led to Kemp’s departure from Los Angeles was simple: five outfielders, three starting spots. That’s what the team’s new front office, led by ex-Rays general manager Andrew Friedman, inherited when they took over in October 2014. They also had to cope with sky-high expectations created by 96 wins and a second straight division title but, yet again, no World Series title coming back to Los Angeles for the 26th consecutive year. Their roster had a couple of holes and a few redundancies, which the incoming braintrust quickly identified.
“At the time, we had a clear outfield surplus,” says Zaidi, who was hired away from Oakland by Friedman shortly after the latter’s arrival. “There was a strong motivation to reallocate that depth to positions of greater need.”
That outfield was indeed crowded: Beyond Kemp, the Dodgers had veterans Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford, as well as exciting young talents in Joc Pederson and Yasiel Puig. At 23 years old, Puig was the breakout superstar; at 22, top prospect Pederson was part of the future, too. Crawford and Ethier were on the other end of the spectrum—each 32 and declining—but both were unlikely to bring back any value thanks to their long and expensive contracts.
That left Kemp. Then 29, he was three years removed from a spectacular season in which he hit .324/.399/.586 with 39 homers, 40 stolen bases, a 172 OPS+, 8.0 WAR, a Gold Glove for his work in center, and a second-place finish in the NL MVP voting behind Ryan Braun. But 2012 and ’13 saw him frequently sidelined as his body broke down—hamstring strains, shoulder inflammation, an ankle sprain that eventually became ankle surgery. As injuries mounted, his offense slipped. After finishing one homer shy of the 40–40 club in ‘11, he swiped just 26 bags over the next three seasons combined. His defense, meanwhile, sank further and further into the negative; by 2014, he’d left center for the less challenging corners, yet still his numbers suffered. “Matt, even just physically, had some ups and downs his last couple of years,” Zaidi says.
Despite having signed an eight-year, $160 million contract extension after his near-MVP 2011 season, Kemp was frequently the subject of trade rumors under the old regime of Ned Colletti. That held under Friedman, and as the Dodgers entered that year’s Winter Meetings, they soon found a willing trade partner: the Padres. Under new GM A.J. Preller, moribund San Diego was aiming to become a contender quickly and wanted a big bat in the outfield. The catcher-needy Dodgers, meanwhile, identified Padres backstop Yasmani Grandal as a target. On Dec. 18, 2014, a deal was struck: Kemp, along with backup catcher Tim Federowicz, for Grandal and two minor league pitchers.
When Friedman called Kemp to break the news, Zaidi says, it was the first time either had spoken to the other. The conversation was short and polite, even if Kemp couldn’t believe what had happened. “I’d always been in trade talks, but I didn’t see that coming. I think it was pretty surprising to everybody,” he says. “It was sad, sad day for us.”
In Los Angeles, Kemp had seemed on the verge of becoming an icon. He had all the tools to become a household name: personality, charisma, good looks, and a starring role on one of the game’s most historic franchises. He was a multi-millionaire in the country’s celebrity capital who had eyes on becoming baseball’s first ever 50–50 player. He even dated Rihanna for a spell. All was going his way.
Instead, with one simple phone call, his path curved into San Diego and away from baseball relevance. For the next four years, a man who appeared destined to become one of the game’s megastars sank into obscurity.
On the surface, the fit between Kemp and the 2018 Dodgers didn’t seem evident. Just like three years earlier, Los Angeles had plenty of outfielders, between Puig, Pederson, Chris Taylor, reserves Kiké Hernandez and Andrew Toles, and top prospect Alex Verdugo. And while none of those players were flawless pieces, each looked like a better bet than what Kemp had become.
When Kemp arrived in San Diego ahead of the 2015 season, he was supposed to lead a revamped Padres squad to contention. Instead, he was a mess. That year, he posted his worst full-season numbers at the plate in five years, his defense cratered in rightfield, and he finished barely above replacement level overall (0.5 WAR). The next year saw an equally slow start offensively, with a .254/.275/.448 line in the first half, and with San Diego’s plans long gone kaput—74 wins in ’15 and a 38–51 mark in the first half in ‘16—Preller pulled the plug on his grand experiment. On July 30, Kemp was sent to the Braves in a salary dump: The return was Cuban infielder Hector Olivera, under suspension for a domestic violence arrest and soon released without playing a single game for San Diego.
Kemp was better in Atlanta, hitting 12 homers in 56 games and posting a 126 OPS+, but that mattered little to the rebuilding Braves, who lost 93 games that year. Then came the nadir: A 2017 season in which Kemp started hot but played in only 115 games because of multiple hamstring strains, homered just 19 times, was merely league average with the bat and awful with the glove, and put up -1.3 WAR—eighth-lowest among all major league hitters that year. “I felt good at the start,” he says of last season. “If I’m on the field, good things are going to happen, and the stats will be there. But I wasn’t on the field that much, so they weren’t where they should’ve been.”
By that point, Kemp was more calamitous contract than viable player—a walking $43 million expenditure whose salary was scattered across the ledgers of the Dodgers, Padres and Braves. But that ended up being exactly why his old team targeted him. Facing a massive luxury tax bill if its 2018 payroll went over $197 million, Los Angeles wanted to get rid of some of its more onerous financial responsibilities. Atlanta emerged as a viable option. “It came together primarily from talks about what our respective financial goals were, and then we had to find the pieces that made the trade work for both sides,” Zaidi says.
On Dec. 16, as Kemp was settling down for lunch, the trade was finalized. To the Braves went veterans Adrian Gonzalez (owed $22 million in 2018), Brandon McCarthy ($11.5 million) and Scott Kazmir ($17 million), plus utility infielder Charlie Culberson. In return, the Dodgers received Kemp, with the final two years of his contract split between various teams like a dinner check.
It was an ignominious comeback; Kemp was there to balance books instead of make a difference to the on-field bottom line. It also could have been fleeting: Rumors abounded that he would be spun off before the season, as there was no room for him in the Dodgers’ outfield. And even if he stayed, a reserve role seemed more likely than not for a player whose glove and legs were apparently made of papier-mâché.
Kemp had support, though, in particular from an old friend: Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who had come up with Kemp through the team’s farm system. The two were like brothers, and the big righty from Curaçao was excited to hear that his former teammate was rejoining the fold. In January, they went to a basketball game at Los Angeles’ Staples Center—“The Lakers, man, I’m not going to watch the Clippers,” he responds when asked who they were there to see—and chatted about the future. “I listened to him talk about how bad he wanted to be back with the Dodgers,” Jansen says. So he went to Friedman and the Dodgers’ front office with a plea: Keep Kemp. Give him a chance to show that he can be his old self again.
It’s a message they took to heart, and one that Kemp himself had delivered as well. “Matt expressed how excited he was to be back with the organization, how he’d been in a couple of different spots and learned to appreciate what he had here, how much it meant to him to be a Dodger,” Zaidi says. “He said, ‘I don’t know what your plans are, but I’m going to do everything I can to be a productive player and help you guys win.’”
Dave Roberts knew early in spring training that Matt Kemp was back. “You talk about the body, the way he came in shape,” he says. “Watching his first batting practice, the way the ball’s coming off the bat. To see the way he’s moving around in the outfield, the way he got along with his teammates and coaches. It was pretty easy to forecast that he was going to be a positive piece in this.”
“Best shape of his life” is a risible spring cliché, but in Kemp’s case, it was actual reality. After looking heavy and sluggish with the Braves, he dropped several pounds over the winter—reportedly as many as 50—and showed up to Dodgers camp in Arizona looking trim and fit. “He was smoking some guys in our early sprints in spring training, and that’s when you felt like all the talk about his work in the offseason and how much better shape he was in, that there was a lot of truth there,” Zaidi says.
As the spring went on, Kemp’s case to be a starter became stronger and stronger. “He really hit the ground running and made it pretty clear he was going to be a big factor,” Zaidi says.
“I was sold early,” Roberts says. “To think he’s going to come here and be penciled in to start wasn’t going to happen. He took it as a challenge and earned the at-bats.”
Now, Kemp is Los Angeles’ regular leftfielder—an unthinkable idea over the last few years, but entirely feasible now. By Defensive Runs Saved, he’s a plus for the first time in nearly a decade. His better body shows in his base running, too: By Statcast’s Sprint Speed, he’s gone from a glacial 24.9 feet per second last year to 26.5 this season—still slow, but a drastic improvement.
Most importantly, though, is that Kemp has stayed healthy. He’s played in 81 of the Dodgers’ 85 games and shown no signs that the chronic hip, back and leg problems that derailed him years ago are still an issue. Mentally, too, things are different. In his younger days, Kemp says, he struggled to stay even keeled when things went wrong. “Learning to deal with failure, certain situations, injuries, things you can’t control, it gets frustrating,” he says. “When you get older, you learn to deal with it. I’m more calm, I don’t worry as much.”
“I don’t think he changed, I think he just grew,” Jansen says. “We’re all going to grow up in our lives, and he probably learned from what happened.”
“What happened” is left vague on Jansen’s part, and it’s unclear if something soured between team and player before Kemp’s abrupt exit. “Everybody makes mistakes, and I feel like people we had before in the organization weren’t helping and they tried to claim that he was a bad guy, which he wasn’t,” Jansen says, but he declines to go into any additional detail.
When Kemp was in San Diego, Roberts was his bench coach, and over their lone season together there, they talked about the end of his time with the Dodgers. “There was talk about how he probably could have handled things differently, but that’s just part of a player’s maturation,” Roberts says. Now, he credits Kemp for his role as a clubhouse leader. “His workmanlike attitude has rubbed off on a lot of guys.”
The Dodgers need Kemp to lead the way on the field, too. At 46–39, Los Angeles is 1 1/2 games behind Arizona for first place in the NL West, and his bat will be crucial to winning a potential sixth straight division crown. It would also be a return for Kemp to meaningful October baseball for the first time since he left. “Seeing where this team was, one win away from the World Series, that’s my main goal for the season, being one of the last teams standing,” he says.
Kemp has one more year left on his deal after this season, then will hit free agency—amazingly, for the first time in his career—at the age of 35. Assuming good health, he’d like to keep going beyond that. “Torii Hunter always told me he wanted to decide when he wanted to quit playing baseball, not for someone else to decide,” he says. “I want to do the same. I feel like I’ve got a lot let to offer. I’m gonna ride this thing until the wheels fall off.”
In his years away from Los Angeles, one of the things Kemp found to be the strangest was when he’d come back to Dodger Stadium as an opposing player and have to remind himself to turn right in the tunnels toward the away clubhouse, instead of going left as he’d done a thousand times before. Now, though, when he reaches that fork in the hallway, it’s home he heads for—the one he never wanted to leave, the one he figured he’d never see again, and the one he gratefully and unexpectedly has back.