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Not a Rookie: Matt Kemp

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Not a Rookie: Matt Kemp

Matt Kemp was drafted in the sixth round by the Dodgers in 2003, out of high school in Midwest City, Oklahoma. He was considered very toolsy and athletic, but rather raw, best-known as a basketball player in high school. He hit .270/.298/.346 in 42 games for the Gulf Coast League Dodgers after signing. I didn’t give put him in the 2004 book, but a similar player nowadays would get a Grade C “with higher potential” rating. His strike zone judgment was quite poor in the early going.

Plate discipline remained a problem in 2004 but it wasn’t enough to prevent him from hitting .288/.330/.499 with 17 homers in 111 games for Columbus in the Sally League. He hit .351 in 11 games for Vero Beach late in the season. He drew 28 walks against 112 strikeouts on the year, but his tools were obvious. I gave him a Grade C+ in the book, impressed with his production but noting that while his upside was great, “the same can be said for innumerable tools burnouts like Reggie Abercrombie.” I advised the Dodgers to give him as much time at Vero Beach in 2005 as possible.

I don’t know if they read my book or not but that’s exactly what they did in ’05, leaving him in the Florida State League all year. He responded with a .306/.349/.569 mark, with 27 homers and 23 steals. I remained concerned enough with his plate discipline to give him a Grade C+ in the 2006 book. In retrospect I should definitely have given him at least a Grade B.

Kemp began 2006 in Double-A, hitting .327/.399/.528 in 48 games. He split the rest of the year between Triple-A and the majors, dominating Vegas to a .363/.423/.555 tune but struggling with the strike zone in the Show.. He got into 52 major league games, hitting .253/.289/.448 and losing his rookie eligibility. Last year he played 98 games for the Dodgers, hitting .324/.344/.496. He has now played 150 major league games, hitting .312/.344/.496 with 17 homers, 25 walks, and 119 strikeouts in 446 at-bats.

Plate discipline is still an issue for him, but Kemp is one of those guys who has such tremendous bat speed that it hasn’t hurt him much, even in the majors. He doesn’t have to become a walk machine, of course, and he did reduce his strikeout rate last year, a very good sign. My guess is that major league pitchers will make some adjustments in their approach and we will see his batting average drop, but we’re still talking about a guy who should hit .280-.290 with 25/20 production. At age 23 he has plenty of time to improve beyond that.

Short-term projections

Shandler: .290/.331/.466

James: .322/.365/.508

ZIPS: .303/.348/.483

Weighted Mean PECOTA: .298/.351/.509

Me: .287/.337/.497

I’m one of the “pessimists” and I love the guy.. I just think he needs a year to consolidate.

Longer-term, if Kemp develops along a normal curve he’s got a great shot at being an excellent player. Positive PECOTA comps include Derek Bell, Chili Davis, Andre Dawson, Sammy Sosa, Ellis Burks, Ray Lankford, and Ruben Sierra. Cautionary notes are sounded by the presence of Todd Hollandsworth, Pedro Munoz, and Ruben Mateo on the list. Hollandsworth and Munoz were useful role players, and only the injury-busted Mateo is a big red flag.

Kemp still makes mistakes of inexperience with baserunning and fielding, and his name keeps popping up in trade rumors. I think that’s nuts. This guy has one of the brightest futures in baseball. It would not surprise me to see him emerge as an MVP candidate as soon as 2009.