As the 2013 MLB Winter Meetings continue today, there are numerous trade rumors regarding Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp. The Detroit Tigers, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers have all reportedly shown interest in the outfielder, despite the fact that his last two seasons have been marred by injury. Here's a look at his career, how he developed as a prospect and where he stands historically.
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 but his athleticism was clear.
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 Low-A South Atlantic League. This earned him a promotion to High-A, where 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 excellent. I gave him a Grade C+ in the book, impressed with his production but noting his problems with the strike zone. 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 to work out the kinks with the zone.
The Dodgers apparently had a similar thought process and hat’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. However, he still had some issues with impatience, with only 25 walks against 92 strikeouts in 418 at-bats. 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. Improved strike zone judgment stood out: he drew 20 walks in those 48 games. He split the rest of the year between Triple-A and the majors, dominating Vegas to a .363/.423/.555 tune. He got into 52 major league games, hitting .253/.289/.448 and losing his rookie eligibility with 154 at-bats. His approach was still aggressive but he held his own considering his rapid advancement.
As you know, Kemp exploded with a .324/.344/.496 line in 2007 at the tender age of 22. Solid campaigns in '08, '09, and '10 followed, with Kemp emerging as one of the best power/speed players in the league, averaging 25 homers and 25 steals per year. His 2011 season was MVP caliber (8.4 fWAR, .324/.399/.586, ranking first in the NL in homers, runs, and RBI).
Although limited by injuries to just 106 games in '12 he was excellent when healthy (.303/.367/.538). 2013 saw his production sag however, as he was hampered by remnant shoulder problems and an ankle injury. His SLG dropped down to just .395, his defense deteriorated, and his fWAR actually dropped below replacement level to -0.4.
Overall, in 966 games over parts of eight seasons, Kemp has hit .293/.350/.493 with 157 home runs and 162 steals, collecting 20.6 fWAR.
In historical terms, through age 28 Kemp's most comparable players are
That's an impressive list, with two Hall of Famers (Williams, Dawson) and a bunch of guys who made All-Star teams. Reggie Smith was an outstanding player who was better than some guys who have made the Hall. How did these guys last past age 28?
Mondesi peaked early; his best season was at age 26, and while he remained productive for a few years, he faded quickly after age 30. Hall member Williams was excellent all the way through 36 and didn't have a bad year until he was 38. Wells was another early peaker: he had a bad year at age 28 (as Kemp did), rebounded with a good season at 29, slumped again at 30, rebounded at 31, then turned into a punchline for jokes about bad contracts.
Thomson peaked at 27, had a couple of solid years at 28 and 29 but then got hurt and was never the same, though he lasted as a role player until 36. Smith was excellent through 30, got hurt at 31, was excellent again at 32 and 33, then fell afoul of more injuries although he posted a 134 OPS+ as late as age 37.
Lee remained a productive hitter through age 33 but his defense deteriorated and his contract was an albatross. Bell was great at 27, slumped at 28, rebounded at 29, slumped again at 30, rebounded at 31, then faded from the scene. Dawson was great at 28, had injury problems at ages 29 and 30 with some loss of production, then got healthy again and won an MVP at 32. He gradually faded from greatness at that point but remained an above-average hitter through 37.
Clark was an interesting case: he struggled with injuries from ages 27 through 30, although he was productive when in the lineup. At age 31 he led the National League in OPS. He remained a dangerous hitter through age 35, although his defense got bad enough that he was eventually relegated to the DH role.
Bobby Murcer was an early peaker: his best season was at age 25. He made five consecutive All-Star teams from ages 25 to 29 then faded into being a decent role player through age 34.
So what do we see here? Of the most comparables through age 28, only Billy Williams maintained consistent production and health into his mid-30s. Dawson, Clark, and Smith all had excellent seasons in their 30s but had to deal with health problems. Mondesi, Wells, Thomson, and Murcer all peaked early. Guys like Lee and Bell still produced power for several years but their other skills declined sharply. More than one guy had yo-yo like career patterns past 28, alternating good years with bad.
Overall, if history is any guide, we may have already seen Kemp's peak as a complete player. That said, he should remain a productive and valuable hitter even if his other skills deteriorate with age, and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see him follow the Dawson or Clark patterns and have a couple of outstanding offensive seasons when his body allows.
So what's up with trading him? Money looks like the big issue of course: his contract is worth $21 million a year for the next six seasons, which would be fine if he's healthy and playing like he did in '11 or '12. Although he is supposed to be healthy for 2014, his durability is an obvious concern and history says it should be. The Dodgers are reportedly willing to eat part of his salary, which may be telling given that they are more familiar with his medical condition than anyone.
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